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Endangered rattlesnake gets sanctuary in Venango County

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By Bill Vidonic
Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012
 

The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy last week bought 55 acres of land in rural Venango County to protect an endangered rattlesnake.

Pennsylvania officials declared the eastern massasauga rattlesnake an endangered species, and the rattlesnake is under consideration for federal protection, which could help secure additional funding for conservation efforts and open up the resources of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"They bring balance to the ecosystem, and they are part of our history in Pennsylvania and worth preserving," Ryan Miller, a zoologist with the conservancy, said about the snakes.

Miller wouldn't disclose the exact location of the property, only saying it was in the northwestern corner of Venango County. The conservancy said the property contains more than 12 acres of wetlands and 1,600 feet of stream.

"We know (the snakes) are in the area," Miller said. "They're very hard to find, they stay hidden in the grass."

Miller said it's unknown how many of the rattlers live on the Venango County land or in three other sites in Venango and Butler counties, but the numbers have been dwindling.

"One place is just a 2-acre area of grass," Miller said. "They are barely hanging on."

He added that the conservancy has tagged about 300 of the rattlers statewide with microchips, so they can be tracked. Miller said poaching is a concern, and law enforcement will be able to track the snakes with the microchips. He said some people believe that snake venom can help with medical problems, and has been explored for treatment of arthritis, polio and multiple sclerosis.

Miller said the snakes eat mice and rodents, which help balance out the ecosystem.

"They hold a niche in these little grasslands that have held on since the Ice Age," Miller said.

"If we lost (the snakes), who knows what we could have lost in the long run• We could lose some benefit we don't even know of," Miller said.

The purchase price for the Venango land, which wasn't available, was funded through a bequest of Helen Katz, a Pittsburgher who bequeathed $5 million to the conservancy several years ago.

Henry Kacprzyk, curator of Reptiles and Kids' Kingdom for the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, praised the conservancy's purchase of the land for the eastern massasauga rattlesnakes.

"We know there numbers are very low," he said. "They were once more common in Western Pennsylvania. They do well in bottomlands. Most people don't know they're there when they are there."

He attributed their decline to loss of habitat due to agriculture, road building and urbanization.

He said the purchase of the land could help other species such as otters, beavers, wild turkeys and deer.

"A lot of other species will be able to ride the coattails of this conservation effort for the massasauga," Kacprzyk said.

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