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Snakes in the Grass

The threatened eastern massasauga rattlesnake is finding out the hard way who its friends are.

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by Sergio Barreto

"Our weekends are gone through October," says Dick Pearson, manager of the 12 cabins the Illinois Department of Natural Resources operates at Eldon Hazlet State Park. "We get anywhere from 25 to 30 voice mails a day, and about 90 percent of those are turned away because we just don't have room. For Labor Day weekend we turned away 100, 125 families. We've been getting people from the northern area, from Chicago and even Rockford. The four-person cabins are $56 a day. Some people from Chicago ask me if I haven't forgotten maybe a one in front of the 56."

What brings families to the area, 45 miles east of Saint Louis, is Carlyle Lake, the largest man-made body of water in Illinois--3 miles wide and 18 long--and a prime spot for fishing, sailboating, hunting, and just about any kind of outdoor activity. The DNR and local officials would like to capitalize on the area's increasing popularity as a tourist destination by building more rental cabins at Hazlet, on the lake's western shore, and a lodge in South Shore State Park, on its eastern shore. But those plans have been stalled by a creature so small and elusive that most local residents have never even seen one: the eastern massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus), which is on the state's endangered-species list and is a candidate for the federal list.

"Based on the number we've seen in Carlyle, that has to be the mother lode in the state for that species," says David Mauger, who has monitored one of the two other massasauga populations in the state that are still considered significant. "You have to look at Carlyle and say that's the best chance for survival of that species in Illinois."

Mauger is only one of many scientists and environmentalists who've spoken out against the DNR's proposed development since it was announced last year. Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, also oppose the project, and they find it particularly galling that the development was proposed by an agency whose mission includes protecting threatened wildlife--the DNR hadn't even done an environmental assessment or prepared an environmental impact statement.

"The Sierra Club's position is one of the strongest possible opposition to further development at Carlyle Lake," Christine Williamson, a Chicagoan who's the Sierra Club's state conservation chair, wrote in a strongly worded March 13 letter to the DNR. "Herpetologists have concluded that such development and the attendant increase in human and automobile traffic would severely impact the long-term survival of the Massasauga Rattlesnake in Illinois, thus putting the IDNR in violation of the Illinois Endangered Species Act."

The official policy of Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt is to avoid putting species on the federal endangered list, because that sets in motion all the onerous mandatory provisions of the Endangered Species Act, says Tom Buchele, who was until recently the lead attorney for the Chicago office of the Environmental Law and Policy Center and working with the Sierra Club on this issue. "You'd think the IDNR would do everything they could to keep species from being listed, but instead they seem to be doing the opposite--because if they eliminate this, the southernmost [massasauga] population in the U.S., that almost guarantees the species will be forced onto the list."

The development is supported by many local residents, and they're irritated by the environmentalists' opposition, in part because they think they're mainly Chicagoans. "There is mistrust between the two cultures," says Jon Phillips, a lifelong area resident who owns a farm roughly three miles from the lake's northern edge. "There is an arrogant attitude from suburban sophisticates like the Sierra Club--they seem to think of rural people as rednecks and think they can tell us what to do. On the other hand, folks down here look at these people and think, they drive nice cars, work in a nice office, don't see much of nature. Chicago used to be a forest, you know. Some of us think of these people as urban hypocrites."

Jim Harris, president of the Carlyle Lake Association, which represents lake users, warns that if the locals who farm land designated as massasauga habitat feel their livelihood is threatened, the consequences could be dire. "This is a very interesting group of farmers that live in that area," he says. "They're getting very mad. They're gonna talk to their representatives and senators and really go after them. Obviously they know where the snakes are. Most of them are on their land, and I'll leave it to you what might happen."

The snakes, which average 17 to 20 inches long, once inhabited most of the midwest and northeast. According to the Status Assessment for the Eastern Massasauga published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1998, massasaugas were documented historically, often in large numbers, from the Missouri border north into Michigan and from Iowa into western New York and Ontario. In the mid-70s scientists warned that the snakes were disappearing, and today they have endangered-species status in the ten states they still inhabit.

"One of the problems they have is they reproduce very slowly--every other year or every three years," says Tom Anton, who has studied the third significant population in the state. "The female garter snake can have anywhere from 10 to 40 babies every single year, and the massasauga may not even have 8 to 11 every three years."

In Illinois massasaugas were once most prevalent in the northern four-fifths of the state. But as the prairies and wetlands dwindled, so did the species' numbers. Of the state's 25 historically documented populations, only 5 still exist, and only 3 are large enough that they have any chance of surviving.

The populations that Anton and David Mauger have been watching are both in the Chicago area, and both are struggling. "The evidence at the site where we worked more closely with the forest preserve indicates that population has declined precipitously," says Mauger, who's been watching the snakes in the Gudenow Creek area in Will County. "We are having trouble finding snakes. For example, we did monitoring last year at our core site and weren't able to find any, but we did recover a roadkill in the area. So you know the snakes are there, but we're surmising the numbers are going down. And our initial estimate was pretty low--the evidence suggests there were fewer than 50 animals. Anybody will tell you that when you're dealing with population sizes that small they're very vulnerable to chance. We are very concerned, but we are not giving up. There are nearby areas that are unprotected [privately owned] land where there may be other fragments of the population."

Anton, who's been watching the Desplaines River population, at the border of Cook and Lake counties, says, "What we can say for sure is that for some reason, in spite of everything we've done, with the suburban subdivisions' development and road-construction projects, the [massasaugas] are still somehow managing to hang on. We think their secretive, shy nature, being nocturnal in the heat of summer, and the fact that they disperse contribute to their ability to avoid danger. The other good news is, most of the land where they're found here is already protected."

But, he says, "Our last estimate at Ryerson Woods, we extrapolated and estimated between 40 and 50. They're one of the most wonderful and at the same time one of the most frustrating animals in the world to work with, wherever they are. In this area, speaking for myself, you'll go one year and find 7 animals--up to 14--and next year you'll find 2, and the year after that you'll find 3. I hope they're around for generations to come. But you never know. Every year I find one I breathe a sigh of relief, because it's the kind of animal that keeps you waiting with bated breath. You never know where the next shoe is going to drop, where the next catastrophe is going to hit, and what's the final straw that eliminates a population of these animals."

Massasaugas are poisonous, though they tend to avoid people. "They're probably not poisonous enough to kill an adult," says Ralph Axtell, biology professor at the University of Southern Illinois at Edwardsville, though they could kill a child. "I went out to see a massasauga-bite victim about 20 years ago," he says. "This was in the particular area that they are proposing to build new cabins and stuff. This snake was apparently a foot and a half long, was sitting next to a dog-watering bowl or something. This gentleman was bit by a snake when he went to feed his dog. There was a whole bunch of complications involved with the local hospital--they wanted to cut off his finger and stuff." They didn't, he was fine, and bites remain rare.

The snakes often get the worst of their encounters with humans. In 1991 DNR biologist Scott Ballard, who's been studying the Carlyle massasaugas since 1991 for the DNR's Natural History Survey, started keeping track of such encounters at the lake, and he's documented from 2 to 20 a year. Most of them have been sightings, and in many cases the snakes had been chopped up by lawn mowers or splattered across roads.

Many residents around the lake remain largely unaware of their crawly companions. "I've sailed on Carlyle Lake for 27 years," says Jim Harris, "and the only massasauga I've ever seen was captured by the corps--and they had it in a box. I've never seen one in the wild."

Carlyle Lake didn't come into being until 1967, though it was being planned as early as 1933, when Clinton County residents, tired of the Kaskaskia River's constant flooding, banded together to find a solution. The Flood Control Act of 1938 authorized a reservoir at Carlyle, but World War II caused that plan to be shelved. Then in 1957 the Army Corps of Engineers drafted a comprehensive plan for the Kaskaskia River project. The government purchased 26,000 acres of land for the lake, as well as a buffer zone surrounding it for flood easement, and construction began in 1958. Homes, county roads, railroad tracks, and even cemeteries had to be moved. The corps then built a dam and flooded the land. They also put riprap--a rocky wall similar to the one found along Chicago's lakeshore--around the lake, inadvertently making the area an even better habitat for the snakes.

"There was a three-prong approach to the lake when the corps built it--recreation, flood control, and economic development," says Kurt Granberg, a Democratic state representative from Centralia. "All had equal weight. But various groups had various interests, so they've been fighting over the years in terms of what to do. I started working on this thing in, oh, 1982, because we originally got all these grandiose promises from the federal government in terms of what this would do for the area in terms of economic development. We need economic development downstate. We need to create jobs. Since Carlyle Lake is one of the most visited areas in the state, it made sense to use it." In 1998 he proposed that a lodge be built at South Shore State Park, and that April the DNR solicited proposals to develop and operate a resort, offering up to $1 million in state money. Charles Bidwill III, owner of Sportsman's Park and the Chicago Motor Speedway and co-owner of the East Saint Louis-based Casino Queen, wound up being the only qualified bidder under consideration, and he drew up plans for a $7.8 million, 96-room lodge and resort.

That August the DNR, responding to concerns about the massasauga as well as possible evidence of an ancient Native American site by the lake, put the project on hold. Granberg fired off a letter to the agency suggesting that the massasauga might be rare because "most of them have slithered up to Springfield to the Department of Natural Resources."

Granberg petitioned to have the snake removed from the state's endangered list. State representative Larry Woolard, a Democrat from Carterville, had been unable to get a reservoir built in his district because of two endangered species, the Indiana crawfish and the least brook lamprey, and he asked to have those species removed from the list as well.

"When all this started to happen, the big problem that I think it pointed to was that state legislators approve of the list of species--and can also pull species off," says Michael Radmer, a former DNR researcher. "For the first time that I'm aware of in the 25 years that Illinois has had this law, legislators tried to pull a species not based on scientific evidence but based on their own political plans. I'd like to see this taken out of the hands of politicians." He adds, "I've seen the state law work. I've seen cases where the DNR is very diligent about enforcing it. I think in this case it's possibly because it's a venomous snake. There probably aren't too many people anywhere who like rattlers. I went to school in Carbondale, not too far from Carlyle, and I know that southern part of the state is very depressed, even now with the economy as good as it is."

In March 1999 Granberg and Woolard introduced a new bill that would have allowed all three species to be relocated to different sites, so that the lodge and the reservoir could be built. It also would have allowed the state to use the same approach if other developments posed a threat to endangered species. During debate on the measure Granberg told the house, "What we're trying to do is provide the brakes of common sense to government." The bill passed the house but then died. The resort remained on hold, though the DNR asked the corps to determine whether the project would endanger the massasauga. The resort has since been given the go-ahead by the corps, and environmentalists have conceded defeat. "By the time we found out about that project," says Doug Chien, conservation field representative for the Chicago branch of the Sierra Club, "it was already too far along for us to organize against it effectively."

Meanwhile, state senator Frank Watson, a Republican from Greenville, was quietly working with the DNR to build 12 cottages across the lake at Hazlet for $1.5 million, all state money. Environmentalists somehow missed any hearings on the project--"We may have been asleep at the wheel," concedes Chien--and the cabins were quickly built. On April 12, 1999, the DNR announced that eight single units and four duplexes, which featured such amenities as wet bars and decks overlooking the lake, were open for business.

Environmentalists, who were taken by surprise, were upset. They didn't know the DNR had plans to build more cabins as part of phase two of the project. But some people who worked with the agency knew and were troubled by the plans. That October Chris Phillips, an internationally renowned researcher who's been studying the Carlyle massasaugas for the DNR's Natural History Survey since 1998, wrote a memo to the DNR's Ken Litchfield, who was overseeing the project: "Three reports of massasaugas either along the cabin foundations or within 20 meters of the cabins were received in September 1999. At least one of these involved a snake that was probably born less than a month prior to the encounter. This indicates that there is birthing habitat within a kilometer of the cabins. In light of the encounters at the Phase 1 cabins and the similarity of the habitat at the proposed Phase 2 site, it is prudent to conclude that massasaugas utilize the area around the Phase 2 site for foraging and shelter (April through October). It is also very likely that a portion of the Phase 2 area (rip-rapped shoreline and inundated ravines) is used for overwintering and that birthing habitat may be located nearby. Therefore, construction of Phase 2 cabins will have a negative impact on the viability of the massasauga at Carlyle Lake."

A few days later Scott Ballard, who was also working for the DNR's Natural History Survey, sent Litchfield an E-mail stating that the area around the cabins was a birthing site for the snakes. "The discovery of five snakes (one of which was less than two weeks old) in the immediate vicinity of the existing cottages (some coiled up right next to the cottages) during July and August makes this area both a potential birthing and hibernating site for the massasaugas....If there is a need for additional cottages at Hazlet, from my point of view, they do not need to be placed into areas where we already know the snake exists. In addition to the risk of pushing people onto massasauga habitat, which usually results in the snake being killed (as which was the outcome of a September 11 incident, wherein a snake bit a camper's dog after the dog initiated contact with the snake), do we want to be increasing the likelihood of getting someone from the general public bitten because we made it possible to clump them right in the midst of a venomous snake hibernating and birthing area?"

In December Ballard and Phillips wrote a joint E-mail opposing the cabins. Phillips wasn't satisfied with the DNR's response, and he went public with his doubts. The June 17 Springfield State Journal-Register quoted him as saying, "The DNR believes they can (build the cabins) without disturbing the snake. My feeling is we need to finish the study before we can say that definitely."

Yet last February the DNR publicly announced its plan to build 12 new cabins, again using state money. "Specific cabin locations will be based on field assessments that identify wetlands and eastern massasauga habitat," the document read. "Adverse impact on these two resources will be avoided."

During the public-comment period, which lasted through March 15, environmental activists and scientists flooded the DNR's office with letters opposing the project. The Sierra Club's Williamson wrote, "Allowing development elsewhere in the Carlyle Lake area, but most particularly at the site of the rental cabins, which at the IDNR's admission is heavily used by the snakes, is tantamount to hastening the extirpation of this species from the state." She also pointed out that the DNR didn't yet have "incidental take permits," which allow the holders to move animals that are endangered--the law says you can't even touch such animals without a permit--and suggested that the DNR wasn't following proper procedures.

Professor Axtell wrote, "Humans should be warned of the presence of these venomous snakes in the areas where they now occur (especially during their most active periods in the spring and fall), and you might even give some thought to restricting access to these impact areas during these periods." He added, "If you wish to construct new facilities, please do it on the uplands, far from where these snakes roam. If properly explained, the people will thank you for it, and the snakes will have a much more secure future."

Even Canadians chimed in. Kent Prior of the Canadian Wildlife Service's Endangered Species Conservation team sent a letter detailing Canadian researchers' observations on the massasaugas' habitat needs. He concluded, "To disregard this understanding of the habitat needs of the massasaugas and not to accommodate these prerequisites would, in our opinion, jeopardize the long-term viability of the Carlyle Lake population."

The Sierra Club also turned the issue into a members' campaign, which Williamson points out was statewide, not just in Chicago. "Everyone's really fired up about this," she says. "We did a postcard campaign. We asked all our 21,000 members across the state to send a postcard to DNR director Brent Manning and also to Governor Ryan. I don't know what the results were, but I'm sure their office has been flooded with sacks of postcards." She also says that among the letters sent to the DNR during the public-comment period were 15 or 16 from people living around Carlyle Lake who supported the environmentalists' position.

Nevertheless, when the 2001 Illinois budget was announced this past April, Senator Watson announced that $1.5 million had been allocated for the construction of 12 new cabins at Hazlet. Granberg got $2.2 million for improvements at South Shore.

"South Shore State Park is also prime massasauga habitat, even though Granberg will tell you it isn't," says Tom Buchele of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. "Granberg gave me a tour of the lake. When he showed me the cabin site [at Hazlet] he said, 'This place is crawling with snakes.' But when we got to the site where he wants the lodge built he goes, 'Oooh, we don't have any snakes here.'"

The Sierra Club and the Environmental Law and Policy Center promptly threatened to sue the DNR. "They continually say, 'This is not going to endanger the massasaugas,'" says Buchele. "But everything we've seen says exactly the opposite. I have repeatedly asked the DNR for a piece of paper justifying their statements. They said they had something, but we're still waiting."

In April, Keith Shank of the DNR's division of natural resource review and coordination sent an internal E-mail that the Sierra Club later got through a Freedom of Information Act request. "I said we would follow whatever guidance we receive from the Corps respective to [National Endangered Protection Act] compliance," he wrote. "I don't think we really have any choice about it, but if we are not going to comply with whatever the Corps tells us to do, we shouldn't say so, and we'll have to come up with some other response on this issue. Regarding the 'incidental take' argument, I said we are not authorizing any take, and any taking will be treated as a violation of IESPA [Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act]. Everyone needs to understand that 'take' includes harassment and injury, as well as killing, and the only acceptable response to take (after making this assurance) is arrest and prosecution. This argument is dicey. We already have a well-known case of a park visitor killing a snake which bit his dog, and who was not arrested or prosecuted....If our 'protocols,' with which I'm not thoroughly familiar, call for moving snakes out of the way during construction, then it is probably inaccurate to say the Department is not authorizing a taking when making this decision. We can still say that, of course, we just might be setting ourselves up later, is all." Shank's boss, Deanna Glosser, manager of the division of natural resource review and coordination, says she knew nothing of the E-mail.

Some of the people who work with the DNR and had spoken out against the development apparently came under pressure not to talk publicly anymore. Both Chris Phillips and Scott Ballard were contacted for this story and declined to comment (no DNR official besides Glosser would return phone calls). "I can say anything I want because I work for myself," says Tom Anton. "Chris is not now able to talk to the press. This has gotten very ugly." Glosser responds, "The DNR has thousands of employees. If all of them were allowed to talk to the press that would probably cause some confusion."

On June 8 Colonel Michael Morrow, the corps' district engineer who oversees Carlyle Lake, sent Buchele a letter. "It is my understanding that the IDNR is currently initiating efforts to develop documentation and the necessary information through their Comprehensive Environmental Review Process for our review and consideration," the letter reads. "Once the documents are submitted, my staff will review them for completeness, accuracy, and compliance with all applicable Federal law. The information provided by the IDNR and data independently provided by the Corps will be utilized to prepare the [Environmental Assessment's] Administrative Record....Whatever the conclusions drawn from the EA, be assured that a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) will not be issued unless clearly supported." Without a FONSI, the DNR couldn't start construction.

That same day DNR spokesperson Timothy Schwartz was interviewed in an Associated Press story about the project. "We have the funding," he said, "we have the demand, and this is the right time to do it." And a June 17 article in the Springfield State Journal-Register quoted him as saying, "We know that there are groups who have asked the corps to take action and stop this. But at this point we plan to go ahead with the eight new cabins. We feel we're doing what is needed to complete this project while also taking steps not to harm the massasauga."

In mid-June the DNR announced a compromise decision that would relocate the cabin sites and reduce the number to no more than eight. The project's foes weren't impressed. "They still haven't demonstrated that they can do this without affecting the massasaugas," says Williamson. Glosser replies, "We know that snakes travel through the area, but it has not been confirmed to be massasauga habitat. Our position on this development is that it should be as contiguous and compact as possible. The previously proposed developments were too scattered." She adds, "We are hiring a consulting company that has expertise in massasauga handling. We don't have a timetable on that because it's taken us longer than expected to hire somebody." Robert Wilkins, the corps' Carlyle Lake project manager, says the corps is satisfied with the progress the DNR has made on the issue. "They are working on drafting a plan of action to manage and protect the snakes."

Encouraged by the letter from Morrow, the Sierra Club and ELPC shelved their lawsuit. Buchele, who now works for the University of Pennsylvania, is still monitoring the case and is still willing to file the suit if the corps allows the cabins to be built. But he says he's glad someone finally compelled the DNR to do an environmental assessment. "We think the corps is likely to nix the project," he adds. "These cabins really don't matter to them, and they may say no--if only because it's the right thing to do and would make them look good."

"We feel pretty confident that legally and morally we are on the high moral ground," says Williamson. "We are going to win." But until then, she adds, the opposition is being careful. "We are so distrustful of the IDNR right now that we have the site under surveillance. Nothing's supposed to be built until the environmental assessment is completed. We have some members who live near the lake who are monitoring the site constantly to make sure IDNR won't go in and bulldoze and lay down cabin foundations in the middle of the night."

Many local residents have had enough of the issue. "Our take on the thing is that it's been basically done by people who don't know Carlyle, don't know what they're talking about--the Sierra Club people, specifically," says the Carlyle Lake Association's Jim Harris. "We down here are not too involved with what's been going on. It's mostly [people from] Chicago and Springfield. If [the snake] is threatened, what ought to happen, which hasn't happened, is that we ought to sit down with the IDNR people and the local people and figure out what should be done about it.

And local farmer Jon Phillips says, "I'm not against a little snake, but some of these people are getting a little carried away. There are human demands too. We can't prevent people from using the lake or land because of the potential for the snakes. Anytime there's an endangered species found on your land, the law can encumber your rights to the property. Back when eagles were endangered there was this saying, 'If you find an eagle nest on your land, shoot it in the nighttime.' I don't know anyone around here that actually shot eagles, but that's just to say that it's an issue of property rights. Most farmers here have this attitude that [the snake] is fine and dandy, but if I find it on my property I'll get rid of it. I've locked horns with some of them. Nobody knows what benefit it could bring to us. Maybe their little venom may provide something that may be beneficial to us. But a lot of [farmers] don't care."

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