Michigan’s only rattlesnake is a rare sight. The shy, two-foot viper prefers secluded wetlands or prairie habitats where they hide under vegetation and fallen trees. Although most people recoil when they see a rattling reptile, we’re combing our lands to find them and keep them safe.
“They’re cryptic, even if you are looking for them,” said herpetologist David Mifsud, a snake expert with Herpetological Resource and Management whose team is helping our company track the elusive snake.
The effort is part of a two-year project to locate Eastern Massasaugas before construction begins on the Mid-Michigan Pipeline project to replace 55 miles of natural gas pipeline in Clinton, Shiawassee, Ingham, Livingston and Washtenaw counties. Last year, surveyors trekked across more than 50 miles of the planned construction route and found two snakes near Chelsea. They also placed artificial habitats to lure snakes to comfy places for them to hide. That will make the Eastern Massasauga easier to spot when surveyors return this spring.
Although spotting two snakes may not seem impressive, it’s an indication of the declining population. Less than 200 Eastern Massasauga sightings have been reported in the past few years, according to Michigan State University’s Natural Features Inventory. Most sightings were in the south-central part of the Lower Peninsula where the snake is more often encountered. There’s never been a statewide survey for this species.
By doing more than what is required, Mifsud said the in-depth field survey raises the bar for other companies on best practices for land management. Our company and Herpetological Resource and Management worked with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife service to obtain permitting and implement the work.
Operating sustainably, while providing reliable energy, is a priority for our company. Environmental Engineer, Lindsey Johnson, helps assure our projects protect the environment.
“These snakes are a vital component of Michigan’s ecosystem, especially since they’re threatened,” she said. “We want to minimize our ecological footprint to make sure their population survival isn’t impacted by our work.”
Locating the snakes is the first step. When construction begins in 2023, Johnson’s team knows to stop the work if an Eastern Massasauga or any other threatened species is found. They’ll call in Mifsud’s team, experts in species protection. Animals are relocated to a safe area just outside the project area that’s still in their familiar habitat.
“It’s just like your home,” he said. “Snakes and turtles know their landscape, the ponds and the nesting spots … they know where all of the resources are. Moving them is like taking them away from their house. We try to reduce that as much as possible.”
Mifsud said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service has already developed best management practices for projects between Herpetological Resource and Management and our company. We’re committed to caring for the environment as we modernize Michigan’s natural gas system. During past pipeline replacement projects, we’ve cared for sick foxes and, with Mifsud’s help, rescued adult turtles and turtle eggs from the right-of-way. The eggs hatched under Mifsud’s care, then released back into their habitat.
“Consumers Energy is being proactive to protect species that are declining on a global scale,” Mifsud said. “The work that Lindsey and Consumers Energy are doing helps set the benchmark for other energy companies to reevaluate how they approach things, and what becomes necessary in the future for how we best become environmental stewards.”
Johnson also considers herself fortunate to work for a company that prioritizes species protection.
“It’s really awesome that our company supports these extra initiatives to make sure environmental awareness and compliance is a priority. We didn’t have to do any of this, but we’re doing it because it’s the right to do.”
Massasauga rattlesnakes have heart shaped heads, vertical eyes and brown blotchy backs. While you’d be lucky to see one, their venom is deadly. Though deaths from bites have not been reported for over 100 years. And because they’re a protected species, killing one comes with a heavy fine. Mifsud said it’s better to walk away, and not let them stop you from being outdoors.
“They rarely strike. It takes a lot of agitation,” he said. “If you’re going to have a venomous reptile, the Massasauga rattlesnake is the best you could ask for.”