January 28th is Rattlesnake Appreciation Day. It might seem crazy to devote an entire day to appreciating a creature like a rattlesnake, but hear us out. Rattlesnakes, like Wisconsin’s native eastern massasauga (Endangered in Wisconsin and recently added as a federally Threatened species) and timber rattlesnakes, usually get a bad rap in society, and are often portrayed as creepy, deadly pests. This humble holiday reminds us that even slithering snakes play a critical role in maintaining Wisconsin’s diverse ecosystems.
In Wisconsin’s early history, expansion of settlements called for the draining of much of the marshy wetlands in which the eastern massasauga thrived, leaving this unique species little habitat. In fact, up until 1975, the eastern massasauga was hunted down and killed with the express intent of reducing their numbers. They were viewed as pests who threatened livestock and humans. And in many areas today similar feelings still exist about rattlesnakes and have helped put the eastern massasauga where it is today—listed as Endangered of extinction in Wisconsin and listed federally as Threatened (meaning at risk of becoming an Endangered Species).
In truth, Wisconsin’s rattlesnakes do a lot of hard work in maintaining Wisconsin’s wild areas. As a predator, they help control rodent populations that might otherwise damage crops or spread disease. They are also prey, providing other predators like owls, eagles, coyotes, and wolves with a critical source of food. The complex relationships between animals as predator and prey are what keep the wild food chain strong.
At the end of 2016, the eastern massasauga was listed as federally Threatened by the US Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act, meaning it is likely to become federally Endangered in the foreseeable future (it has been Endangered in Wisconsin since 1975).
Rich Staffen, a conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, helped us understand what this new status means and how it will impact future conservation efforts.
“State endangered species law does not protect species habitat, only the species itself,” but federal species law has the ability to designate critical habitat for species, Staffen explained. The new federal Threatened status helps not only the government, but also conservation organizations like the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, prioritize efforts for the eastern massasauga in order to reinforce critical land management and help provide funding to support conservation efforts. Such projects include habitat restoration, population surveys, and research projects on movement, disease, and other possible threats against their shrinking populations.
Hopefully the conservation efforts that result from the new federal designation under the Endangered Species Act will ensure that the eastern massasauga will live in Wisconsin for decades to come.
The Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin is helping protect the eastern massasauga rattlesnake and Wisconsin’s other imperiled species. Learn more and make a donation today to support Wisconsin’s wildlife.