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Saving a Snake: The Battle for Locust Creek

16:48PM Sep 23, 2008


The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2007 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.
By Jennifer Meyer
Laclede, Mo. — The view of Locust Creek from the iron bridge in Pershing State Park on Sept. 15 was a bleak one. The creek had all but dried up. Sandbars spanned the stream like miniature beaches. The smell of rot permeated the air. Death for the creek, and the wet prairie that depends on it for water, seemed imminent.
Tom Woodward, the park's superintendent, said that unless water was returned to Locust Creek soon,it may never recover.
"You could almost call it a point of no return," Woodward said.
Locust Creek winds for about 110 miles from Iowa south through much of Missouri, until it meets up with the Grand River, which then flows into the Missouri River.About 17 of those miles meander through Pershing State Park and supply water to a wetland area that supports a variety of wildlife, including at least one endangered species, the eastern massasauga rattlesnake. The park supports one of the few remaining massasauga populations in the state.

A Meandering Mess

In the 1940s, the creek north of Pershing Park had been straightened, widened and channeled to help ease the effects of flooding in farmers' fields. The idea was to keep the water flowing downstream during flood season instead of spilling over its banks. The plan backfired.
In the park, the stream is allowed to flow naturally, slithering south like a snake. In the spring, the creek floods and water rushes downstream, carrying deadwood and other debris along with it. When it reaches Pershing Park, the water is forced to squeeze from a 100-foot wide channel to one that is 60 feet wide, much like a funnel. The debris in the water clogs the narrower channel and jams the creek, causing floods north of the park.
Rex Wood, a farmer from Meadville, Mo., just north of the park, said the stream should have either been channeled the entire length or just left alone. Locust Creek runs through his fields, and every year he risks losing part of his crops to flooding.
"If you're going to have a meandering stream, have it at the other end," Wood said. "We have to come to a compromise between environmental and agricultural issues."
Channeling the creek through the park would disrupt the wet prairie, which wouldn't receive the number of flood events it naturally should. If the prairie dried up, the massasauga population would die. But Wood said saving agriculture is just as important as saving nature.
"I can appreciate the environmental standpoint. I really do," Wood said. "I love nature and want to see wildlife thrive, but we have to feed people, too."

Fire and Water

Because of these floods, Locust Creek found an easier way to travel this past summer.  Higgins' Ditch, a channel a farmer had dug decades ago, connects with the creek just north of the park, where Locust Creek regularly floods. Since the ditch is straighter than the creek bed, water began flowing into the ditch instead of through the park.
The drying of Locust Creek spelled disaster for the park's wet prairie ecosystem, which needs to be flooded annually, scientists said. Wet prairies are unique in that they require both water and fire to thrive.
"A wet prairie is a complex of plants that are accustomed to and need periodic flooding," Woodward said. "They need moist soil conditions for a minimum period of time but are also frequently managed by fire, either natural or man-made."
Like many aspects of the wet prairie, fire and water operate in a delicate balance. Without fire, the prairie would eventually grow into a forest. Without moisture, the plants and animals that thrive in the prairie, like the massasauga, would die. Some plants in the prairie are so sensitive to moisture that even a few inches difference in elevation can make the soils too wet or dry for the plants to live.
A variety of uncommon plants and animals depends on the park's prairie areas. Standing near the lookout tower at the park, the prairie buzzes with activity. Birds twitter, dragonflies zip about like fighter pilots and bees busy themselves with collecting pollen from the many blooming flowers. It's easy to forget that about 300 poisonous rattlesnakes live there.

Saving a Snake

At only two feet long, the eastern massasauga rattlesnake, also known as the "swamp rattler," is relatively small for a snake. It is tan or gray, with large chocolate brown blotches on its back and sides, and a narrow white stripe on its heart-shaped head. The massasauga is one of five types of poisonous snakes in Missouri.
The massasauga's range stretches from Ontario, Canada, south to Pennsylvania, and west to northern Missouri. In the Midwest, they can be found in wetland areas, which contain open fields that afford excellent areas for basking in the sun. They also use nearby upland areas during part of the year, mainly for rearing young.
Wetland habitat is essential to the snake's winter survival. When it hibernates, it retreats into crayfish burrows in the mud. Sometimes a snake will return to the same burrow each year. Because it hibernates in these burrows, massasaugas usually spend the winter under water, which prevents freezing. The snakes don't drown because of their low metabolism.
While eastern massasaugas are not a federally endangered species, they are listed as endangered in Missouri. Only about three massasauga populations remain in the state.
"The numbers (within the populations) are good, but they have no room to expand," said Jeff Ettling, curator of reptiles, amphibians and fish at the St. Louis Zoo.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, most of the remaining massasauga populations in the United States are on public or protected land. But the fact that massasaugas are still in decline means something is wrong. The Center for Reptile and Amphibian Conservation and Management at Indiana-Purdue University points to habitat fragmentation and degradation as the main reasons massasauga populations are failing.
When wetlands are drained and developed, the animals that live in that ecosystem are pushed into small, isolated "islands" of habitat, putting pressure on the animals for food and space. In short, habitat islands make it difficult for massasaugas, or any species, to survive.
While the snake is considered endangered in Missouri, it isn't in other states. In Michigan, for example, the massasauga is considered a species of special concern, meaning it doesn't receive any legal protection under the Endangered Species Act of the State of Michigan.
Some conservation groups want the snake listed as a federal endangered species so it would receive the same level of legal protection across its range. Those groups might not want to get their hopes up; a species hasn't been listed federally in years, Ettling said.
"It doesn't look like that's going to happen anytime soon," he said, citing government red tape and what he described as the Bush administration's lack of support for the Endangered Species Act.
As a result, some states are taking action for the snakes. Illinois, for example, is launching a pilot program that would list the massasauga as endangered at the state level and would offer it many of the same protections if listed federally.
Ettling said Illinois' actions are a much-needed boost for massasauga populations.
"I think if we wait until they do get federally listed there won't be any snakes left," he said.

Lessons in Love

Why would anyone want to protect a poisonous snake?
 "All organisms have a role in the ecosystem," Ettling said. "No one knows what happens when you take an animal out of the food web."
Massasaugas play an important role in their wetland habitat, both as predator to small rodents like mice and voles, and prey for hawks, owls and some mammals, like raccoons. Without the snakes, mice populations could skyrocket and predatory birds could dwindle.
"Plus, these snakes are only found in the United States, so they're part of our national heritage," Ettling said.
Even though the snakes are poisonous, they aren't aggressive, Ettling said. They offer plenty of advanced warning to passersby by rattling their tails, which sound like the drone of an insect. The snakes won't strike unless provoked.
"What many people don't realize is that venom was evolutionarily developed as a way of procuring food," he said. "Its secondary use is for defense."
Because they are poisonous, though, a massasauga should still be treated with caution.
"Just admire it for what it is and back away," Ettling said. "Just show them some respect, like you would for any type of wildlife."
Many people who are afraid of snakes often mistakenly believe that snakes will purposefully bite humans. In fact, deaths from massasauga bites are extremely rare.
"They've had a bad rep for ages," Ettling said. "People need to understand that just because something's different doesn't mean you can't appreciate it."

Plight of the Prairie

While the snakes are sometimes killed by people, habitat loss and fragmentation have played the biggest roles in the decline of massasauga populations in Missouri, he said.
"The dawn of agriculture was the decline of the massasauga and many other species that depend on prairie habitat," Ettling said.
Developing and draining wetlands has left many massausaugas high and dry. Wet prairies are currently one of Missouri's most endangered ecosystems, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Four wet prairie areas exist in Pershing State Park,and all depend on Locust Creek for moisture. The largest is Locust Creek Prairie at 750 acres. Its boundaries haven't changed since it was first surveyed in the 1840s. It is home to many types of unique native plants, including cordgrass, bluejoint, woodreed, various sedges and hardstem bulrushes.
The wet prairie system also supports a variety of birds, including three types of sparrows, sedge and marsh wrens, red-shouldered hawks, ruby-throated hummingbirds, northern harriers, wild turkeys, great egrets and redwing blackbirds. The prairie is an important stop for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl.
Wet prairies were once fairly common, but because they are level parcels of land with rich, fertile soil, many were drained for development or agriculture.
"We just don't have that many left, in Missouri or the United States," Woodward said. "If we lose what we have, we can't ever get it back."
Woodward firmly believes in being a steward of the land.
"It's kind of like a historic old house that's been in your family for generations," he said. "If you maintain it and take care of it, it will stay nice and your family can enjoy it. But as soon as you sell it, or let it fall apart—sure, you can repair it, but it will never be the same as it was. We think we can build a lot of things, but we just don't have that ability to mimic nature."

Defeating the Ditch

Taking care of Locust Creek and its adjoining wetlands has been Woodward's goal recently. He and his colleagues at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources developed a plan to divert the water flowing into Higgins' Ditch back into Locust Creek.
Woodward said they talked with local landowners before taking any action to divert water.
"We put our best management practices into place and spent a lot of time planning," he said. "Once I explained what we were doing, it seemed to put their (landowners') minds at ease."
While Wood still doesn't like that his fields flood, he understands that other creatures depend on the creek flooding.
"There are acts of nature that we can't control, and it's probably good that we can't," he said. "Part of being a farmer, as far as I'm concerned, is to let other species exist, too."
On Sept. 24, a crew at Pershing State Park finished constructing the first of three rock barriers aimed at barring Locust Creek from Higgins' Ditch. The first structure is meant to block the flow of water into the ditch. The remaining two structures will help minimize erosion.
About a week following the construction of the first rock structure, Locust Creek was already looking much better. The water level had risen to about a foot—a normal level for the creek that time of year, Woodward said.
"We feel so much better about it now," he said, "because at least there's water flowing in it. In some places, the water stretches from bank to bank."
The creek's condition is a good sign for the wet prairie, which will hopefully get some well-needed moisture. As long as water stays in the creek, the wet prairie will be okay, Woodward said. So will the massasauga rattlesnake.
"It's on a lot safer ground now," he said. "We're getting water back into the creek and putting the pieces of the puzzle back together, and letting nature heal the rest."