Eastern massasauga rattlesnake

The eastern massasauga rattlesnake is relatively rare in Pennsylvania but still exists in some northwestern counties.

A recovery plan for the eastern massasauga rattlesnake, which occurs in a small area of northwestern Pennsylvania and in a few other states and a Canadian province, has been completed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The plan focuses largely on the conservation of the wetlands and adjacent upland areas that are the primary habitat of the small, thick-bodied, reclusive snake that is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Pennsylvania lists the species as endangered in the state.

“Never common in Pennsylvania, massasaugas now may be found in only half their historic sites, due to dam building, highway construction, urbanization, forest succession, surface mining and agricultural activity,” according to the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program.

The PNHP has modern records of the snake in Butler, Crawford, Mercer and Venango counties.

It is more widespread but still threatened in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin and Ontario.

Throughout its range, biologists have confirmed that less than half of the eastern massasauga’s historical populations still exist. Most of those populations are in Michigan and Ontario, Canada.

Averaging 20-30 inches in length, with none recorded at more than 39.5 inches, the massasauga is the smallest venomous snake in North America.

“We’re often asked why it’s important to save a snake, especially a venomous species,” said Charlie Wooley, regional director for the service’s Great Lakes Region. “Snakes like the massasauga play an important role in the ecosystem. And even if you don’t like snakes, you probably appreciate the wildlife that relies on this massasauga’s habitat: butterflies, herons, eagles, game species, songbirds and fish. When we conserve the eastern massasauga, all these other species benefit.”

The service listed the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2016, after finding its population had declined over the past three decades due to loss and fragmentation of its wetland habitat, among other threats.

The goal of the eastern massasauga recovery plan is to stop the species’ decline and ensure its long-term survival.

Recovery actions for the eastern massasauga focus on reducing threats to existing populations by addressing habitat loss, along with impacts from flooding and drought, disease and intentional killing.

Recovery planning is one step in a process to address threats to endangered and threatened species. Plans provide a road map for private, tribal, federal and state cooperation in conserving listed species and their ecosystems. While a recovery plan provides guidance on how best to help listed species achieve recovery, it is not a regulatory document.

Many partners have already made progress in conserving the eastern massasauga and its habitat. Before the species was listed, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources recognized the need to manage some of its lands to conserve the snake. Through the agreement, Michigan DNR has enrolled more than 2.7 million acres of land that will be managed to benefit the snake, covering a large area of the species’ range in Michigan.