Protecting the Massasauga

By Angela Simpson If you aren’t familiar with the word, you might guess the ‘massasauga’ was a river, or a word that performers use to warm up their vocal chords […]

By Angela Simpson

If you aren’t familiar with the word, you might guess the ‘massasauga’ was a river, or a word that performers use to warm up their vocal chords and hone annunciation with – but it’s neither. The word, in Chippewa means “great river mouth” and is a description of the habitat where you might find the only venomous snake native to Michigan, the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake.

The Massasauga is one of the smallest members of the rattlesnake family. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources describes it as having a thick body with a pattern of dark brown rectangular patches on a light brown or greyish background. It has a small rattle at the end of its tail and a spade-shaped head shape with cat-like vertical pupils, and heat-sensing pits behind the nostrils. Massasaugas frequently eat small mammals but will opportunistically consume other prey such as other snakes, amphibians, and even small birds. They in turn function as prey for larger snakes, birds such as herons and hawks, and may also be eaten by larger mammals such as raccoon and fox. It is a shy snake, preferring to leave an area when disturbed rather than strike. However, it will protect itself from potential predators with its venomous bite as a last resort. People rarely see them out in the open though they will occasionally warm themselves on a log or other open area in the early morning sun from March to May.

The small rattler was listed as a threatened species in 2016 under the Endangered Species Act. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the population of Massasaugas had declined almost 40 percent in the last decade due primarily to habitat destruction. A total loss of the species would impact the overall ecology of the Midwest region because the snake serves a dual role as predator and prey. Without it, fewer rodents would be eaten and predators of the snakes would not be able to eat them.

“They are a misunderstood species,” said Jonathan Edgerly, of the Michigan National Guard Environmental Department. “Many people hear ‘rattlesnake’ and think ‘aggressive’ but the Massasauga is a small, shy snake, it will opt for flight over fight whenever possible. My department, and our environmental partners at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the National Guard Bureau Installations and Environment directorate, and other local, state and national preservation groups are eager to work together to gather data on this species.”

To this end, Edgerly’s team and representatives from Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center offered to host the first large-scale Massasauga population estimate effort, May 9-11, 2018, on the 147,000 acres that comprise CGJMTC. The national CGJMTC tagging effort is the first population survey to attempt this size and scope. Not every acre of Camp Grayling would be searched, of course, but at any one time up to 30 volunteers may be coursing the woods and other target areas searching for snakes. Once detected, a special tool called ‘snake tongs’ is used to gently and safely lift the snake into a collection bucket for tagging. Once tagged, the snake can be monitored over time to provide data for future population (and preservation) studies.

“Knowing the range of the Massasaugas is especially important at Camp Grayling,” said CGJMTC Post Commander Col. Ed Hallenbeck. “Thousands of military troops train here every year. Human safety and environmental stewardship are two of our highest priorities and we are blessed to have 147,000 acres to work with, so if a training exercise can be done in area X where no Massasaugas have been tagged or seen, instead of area Y where there is a known population, then we will alter the training plan or if absolutely necessary, capture and relocate the snakes with assistance from herpetologists.”

“I will make every effort possible to ensure that the Camp Grayling Environmental Division can continue to uphold its award-winning reputation for environmental stewardship,” Hallenbeck added.

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