Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Endangered snake, mussel await more federal protection.

Eastern massasauga, Michigan’s only venomous snake. Credit: University of Illinois.

By LAURA FOSMIRE
Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan’s gray wolf may be getting the most attention, but it isn’t the only species jumping on and off the endangered species list.

Scientists say many other animals and plants face extinction in the Midwest.

Development, habitat destruction and alien rivals are to blame.

The eastern massasauga, Michigan’s only venomous snake, has candidate status on the federal endangered species list. Although not considered endangered within Michigan, its fate is of special concern.

The rayed bean, a type of freshwater mussel that is endangered in Michigan, also has candidate status on the federal list.

“Candidate listing means that a species should be listed, but they haven’t gotten around to placing it on the list yet,” said Chris Hoving, the endangered species coordinator with the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE). “It could also mean that a species is in near-threatened status and they want to move it up to that level.”

According to the DNRE, a species may be endangered in Michigan but not on the federal list if it’s found in other states. Conversely, a species common in Michigan but not elsewhere may be on the federal list but not the state list.

The state list is updated every two years. The most recent update came last April.

Hoving said that the primary differences between the two lists are based on separate state and federal laws.

The Endangered Species Act, he said, defines the federal list. It includes all species in the United States, as well as species that the government works to protect in other countries against illegal trading, such as importing ivory.

The state list is compiled under a 1994 law, Hoving said.

“In Michigan, we have about 24 or 25 federally endangered species,” he said. “On the state list we have a total of about 400 endangered or threatened species.”

Hoving said that the federal law offers habitat protection and prohibits removing listed plants or animals from their habitat. Plants, however, are not protected on private land.

On the other hand, the state law doesn’t offer the same kind of habitat protection. It does protect endangered plants on private land.

T.J. Miller, chief of the endangered species sector of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Minnesota, said his agency, which is responsible for the region that contains Michigan, takes several factors into account when evaluating a species’ risk.

“One is habitat destruction,” he said. “Another is if there are any diseases or threats that a species is undergoing that might cause it to become endangered. We also consider if a species is being over-utilized for either commercial, recreational or educational purposes.”

Habitat destruction is a large contributing factor to the troubles facing the massasauga.

But Randy Worden, president of the Michigan Society of Herpetologists, said there are others.

“Probably the biggest reason it’s dying out is human persecution,” he said. “People think if it’s a snake, it’s automatically evil and must be killed.

“The second-biggest is probably habitat destruction. It likes to live in fens — bogs with flowing water — but people drain them to build houses and other things on them.”

The rayed bean, on the other hand, has fallen victim to another animal. It owes its depletion largely to invasive zebra mussels in the Great Lakes and connecting streams and rivers.

“Since zebra mussels arrived in the late 1980s, they’ve really done a number on the native species,” said Peter Badra, a conservation scientist with the Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

“The zebra mussel has to attach to a hard surface to survive. If you have a sandy stream, a lot of times the only thing to attach to is the native mussels like the rayed bean,” he explained. “Then you get a native mussel with a lot of zebra mussels globbed onto it. It interferes with their filter feeding and kills them.”

As with the massasauga, the rayed bean and almost every other endangered species, habitat destruction plays a large role.

“Over the past 150 years, we’ve had a lot of changes on the landscape,” Badra said, “so there’s some indirect impacts like agriculture and urbanization that change the water quality. If you have a watershed that’s full of urban development, that really changes the water quality and the habitat available in the streams.”

Despite the risk Michigan’s candidate species face, public knowledge about them is scarce. Badra said that “prettier” species usually get more attention.

“It’s tough,” he said. “There’s a phrase that we use: ‘charismatic mega-fauna.’ The bigger, prettier species get most of the attention.

“The mussels have that going against them — they’re not really dramatic to look at unless you look close at them,” Badra said.

But that doesn’t mean such species are boring or unnecessary.

For instance, Badra said the rayed bean uses a lure system to attract fish so it can attach its larvae to them. The eastern massasauga, meanwhile, boasts prestige as Michigan’s only rattlesnake.

“Nobody’s really sure why no others rattlers have come,” Herpetologists Society president Worden said. “No one has a positive answer. It could be that glaciers pushed most of them out of the state and this is the only species that’s found its way back.”

Scientists are studying the snake and rayed bean with local experts.

“We have graduate students who track the massasauga through a chip that is implanted surgically in the snake,” Worden said. “We’re actually kind of blessed that we’re located in Lansing because the person who implants the chip is a veterinarian, Tara Harrison, at Potter Park Zoo.”

Badra is also working in the Port Huron area to study the rayed bean.

“There’s a large concentration of them in the Black River,” he said. “We’re hoping to get some funding to do some surveying over there.

“There was a big fish kill because of a manure spill in the river,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to get out there this summer and see if there’s a big impact from the manure.”

Both Badra and Worden say they hope that by listing a species as endangered, more can be done to help protect it from extinction.

“We have this big database that the state uses if there’s a project going through for permitting or if they need a permit issued,” Badra said. “The location will be run through our database to see if there’s a rare species at that location. We want to provide information on biodiversity to the decision-makers.

“If the rayed bean is a federal endangered species, then that really gives it a much higher standing in terms of protecting it, and more resources might go to studying it,” he said.

Worden said that although the massasauga is not yet listed as endangered in the state, it ought to be.

“We raise money for conservation research on the snake,” he said. “In the last three years we’ve donated $2,000, and it goes out in packages of $500 grants for graduate research students in Michigan.

“It’s one of our pet species,” he said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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