In search of the elusive Massasauga Rattlesnake

The federal candidate species Massasauga Rattlesnake

A rare Massasauga Rattlesnake found during a scientific survey in northern Ohio

Working with conservationists, biologists, naturalists and other Nature-loving folks has lots of advantages.  A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a small expedition to count and measure Massasauga Rattlesnakes (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) in northeast Ohio.  Because these snakes are a candidate for the federal endangered species list, you can’t just go out and catch them.  You have to have a permit.  So, it was a real treat to get invited along on this little excursion into the wild.

These small rattlesnakes are reclusive and generally hang out in wet meadows and forest edges near wet meadows or old fields.  They do not move far, so the populations of Massasaugas are fairly localized.  That means that if you wipe out the hibernation habitat for these snakes, they will not persist in the area, and rattlesnakes from other populations are not likely to immigrate to fill the void.

According to Herpetologist Greg Lipps, gravid (pregnant) females do not go more than 40 meters from their hibernation spot.  That means that if you find a gravid female like the one in the photo above, you are in the breeding habitat for the Massasauga.  These areas are key for conservation.

There aren’t many of these snakes left, and there aren’t many places where they still thrive.  Conserving the right habitat in the right places is critical to the future of these snakes in Ohio. Greg helps groups like Western Reserve land Conservancy and agencies like the Ohio Department of Natural Resources inventory and understand these fascinating creatures.  Much of the habitat preserved for the Massasauga recently by these groups has been due to Greg’s scientific pursuits.  He tags the snakes with small electronic tags, takes blood samples, weighs them,  and replaces them in the exact spot they were collected from.  His data and knowledge have substantially advanced efforts to understand the populations, ecology, and habitat needs of the snake.  We were very fortunate to have the opportunity to be in the field with such a great herpetologist.

Here’s a video of the trip, including Greg and Western Reserve Land Conservancy Field Director Brett Rodstrom talking about the snakes.  You can catch me at 1:22 on the video munching on a snack and admitting that “I’m a little afraid…”

I might have been a little afraid, but I can’t imagine a greater experience…seeking out a rare venomous snake in northern Ohio.  How wild is that?


How do you make a park?

Beautiful Hemlock trees in a northern Ohio Park
Hemlock woods in a peaceful park

Parks and natural areas are vital to living a full life. Everyone loves them. But, do you know where parks come from? Do you know how they are created or could you name one person involved in creating a new park?

Some of you might be able to answer that question. Great. Many more of you will have no idea.  That’s fine too. We all use parks  and have no idea how or when it was created, or who did it.  What really matters is that the park is there, not who did it.

In many cases a park agency, like the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Parks buys the land, develops the park infrastructure, and then manages the park for the benefit of the public and the plant and animal life found there.  Sometimes though, it is more complicated.  Just as in Nature, everything is interconnected and many factors can play a part in the process.

Park-making has its own ecology. A forest has its canopy trees, mid-level understory, saplings, shrubs, groundcover, soil, leaf litter, microbes, animal life, moisture and light conditions.   Park-creation does too. When one organization with a fixed budget and staff has to do all of the pieces-parts of identifying a potential park, making a deal with the landowner, raising the funds to pay for the park, developing the park infrastructure, staffing and maintaining the park, you have a less robust ecosystem in the world of parks. We don’t expect an oak tree to do the work of a trillium. We don’t expect a warbler to provide shade. Why would we expect agencies that are good at managing parks to also create them?

Luckily, there are some smart park agencies in Ohio. The Geauga Park District, the Portage Park District and MetroParks, Serving Summit County are just a few. These agencies work to effectively and efficiently create new parks in partnership with nongovernmental conservation groups. Working with partners lowers the overall cost of park creation. Savvy agencies are able to focus on their core strengths of managing and interpreting the nature within the parks. This specialization creates a better experience for the park visitor because it frees naturalists and park managers to interpret nature and keep the park running smoothly. Creating a new park takes a completely different skill set.

New parks are real estate deals. Negotiations, contracts, environmental due diligence, title reports, grant applications, private fundraising, bank loans, lot splits, lawyers, CPAs. If a nature-loving park administrator has to deal with these things on a daily basis, how would they ever run the park? Luckily, in the park-making ecosystem, the naturalists can be naturalists, if they understand that there is help out there. In northern Ohio, the complex and often tedious work of creating new park land is often played by Western Reserve Land Conservancy. The Land Conservancy, its trustees, staff and volunteers, all work together with willing landowners and partners to create an interconnected network of protected open space across northern Ohio. They work from Sandusky Bay to the Pennsylvania line, and south past Canton.

Through the Conservancy’s public land program, they help create new public parks. With a professional staff of over 30 experts in each aspect of park creation, the Conservancy provides massive value to all of northern Ohio, even though most people will never know about them. The Conservancy uses its own resources to purchase or finance land for parks when public funds are not immediately available. It then uses its expertise to raise funds and build effective partnerships in order to complete the acquisition of new parks for the benefit of all.

Beyond their public park-making, the Conservancy works with hundreds of landowners to preserve private land. Their efforts are important for plant and animal habitat, water quality protection, and scenic beauty. They also work to ensure agricultural land is protected, which in turn allows the region to rest assured that there will always be land available for the growth of local food. An example of this is Silver Creek Farm in Hiram. This organic farm was conserved by private buyers in partnership with Western Reserve Land Conservancy and will continue to provide wonderful, tasty, wholesome locally grown food.

To date, the Conservancy has helped 400 families leave a legacy by permanently conserving nearly 25,000 of natural and agricultural land. Most of that private preserved land is not open to the public, but it is vital for the region and to all of us personally, whether we know it or not!

People need parks, but parks cannot be created without the efforts of many people.  So,  parks need people too. If you want to take a personal stand for efficient, cost effective land conservation, take a moment to become a member of Western Reserve Land Conservancy today.


Akron Ohio News – County Council supports bog preservation projects – SSNL

There was a very small mention of one of my projects in the local newspaper this week. Here is the link: A Akron Ohio News – County Council supports bog preservation projects – SSNL.

This is about 2 deals that Western Reserve Land Conservancy is helping theA ClevelandA Museum ofA NaturalA History with. The museum will own these two special places, while the conservancy holds permanent restrictions over bothA properties. These 2 layers of protection, as well as restrictions held by the state of Ohio, will ensure that no matter what happens in the future, these sensitive bog habitats will remain intact for future generations to enjoy and learn from.

One of the properties contains a sphagnum mat that you can walk on, then if you jump up and down, people 20 or 30 feet away will also bounce up and down from your movement. Really a cool feeling. You do have to watch out for the poison sumac though!


Hoot and Harvest Festival

On Saturday, October 10, 2009, Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s Medina Summit Chapter will hold its annual harvest festival to celebrate fall and the last year’s land conservation accomplishments.

There will be pumpkins on hand for children to paint and decorate, hayrides, a campfire(with s’mores), face-painting, live music, and an after-dark owl walk.

The Medina Raptor Center will also present a program featuring live owls, giving festival-goers a chance to learn about these fascinating creatures of the night.

A harvest dinner will include hot dogs, beer, hot chocolate, macaroni and cheese, white chicken chili and cornbread.

Bring your kids and friends and enjoy an evening of fellowship and dun while you hear about the Conservancy’s amazing accomplishments.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

5:00 – 8:00 p.m.

Hill’n Dale Club
3605 Poe Road
Montville Township, Ohio.

Tickets are $12 for adults
$6 for children ages 4-12
and free for those 3 and under.

by October 2, 2009 to Gina Pausch at or 440-729-9621.


Ribbon-cutting Sunday at Forest Ridge Preserve –

Ribbon-cutting Sunday at Forest Ridge Preserve –

This is a wonderful, large natural area that was preserved through a partnership of Western Reserve Land Conservancy and Moreland Hills. If you have a chance, attending the ribbon-cutting and taking a hike would be a great adventure!


Division of Wildlife engaging Birders in Conservation

Hunters have bought Duck Stamps for almost a hundred years to help conserve waterfowl habitat. Will Ohio birders soon be able to purchase a “Bird Stamp” to support conservation or other bird habitat? Read about this at the Plain Dealer’s web site: Should birders have to pay to play? | Ohio Birding –

Seems to me to be a no-brainer. There should be Bird Stamps, Fish Stamps (maybe even Steelhead, Bass, Walleye and other gamefish separately), and private land conservation stamps. Anything that we all can do to help the state and private entities out there conserving land ought to be done. If birding is our outdoor recreational activity of choice, we should have the opportunity to support our habit by helping to preserve habitat.

If just 2% of the birders who seek out our feathered friends in Ohio each year would buy a Bird Stamp, at $25.00 each, it would raise $1.5 million dollars per year. This could pay for preservation of lots of habitat. Especially when you consider that the money can be used to match federal grant programs that magnify the impact of our local & state money.

If you agree, contact the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife at the address or number listed here.