Waukesha County

DNR: Best advice to avoid protected snake is to avoid wetlands
By Charles Rathmann, of SBT
It’s the time of year developers with Butler’s garter snakes look forward to. That’s because in the colder weather, their reptilian guests are likely hibernating, and the wide berth they have to leave between the snakes’ wetland homes and construction sites is smaller than in warmer months.
There are other tricks to living with these threatened, scaly denizens of would-be commercial, industrial and residential building sites.
According to Andy Galvin, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources endangered species specialist, said projects that could potentially affect the snake are identified in the permitting process associated with all development projects in the state.
“A development will occur that requires some other DNR permit,” Galvin said. “When the permit is required, a Natural Heritage Inventory Program survey will be done by a DNR staff member. If that person thinks there is a likelihood that the garter snake is there, he or she will require a snake survey.”
The project owner is responsible for commissioning the snake survey; Galvin said the presence of wetlands is the best arbiter of whether a particular site is a likely home to the snake.
“From what we know about the snake, it pretty much survives in wetland areas with upland habitat – and it requires both for the various lifestages it goes through,” Galvin said. “If the survey comes back and they do not find any Butler’s, that’s fine. If there are Butler’s there, we deal with ways the project can avoid all impacts. There is a provision in the law, which provides for incidental takings. This provides for taking of a species for an otherwise lawful purpose, but it requires authorization from the DNR.”
The DNR has three criteria that allow a project owner to qualify for the incidental taking clause, Galvin said.
“We have to prove that the taking of that particular species will not jeopardize the current status or recovery of the species across the state,” he said. “If we determine that the take will not jeopardize recovery, we try to minimize the extent of take as much as possible by doing certain things to minimize the impact. There has to be a public benefit to the project.”
Getting approval for incidental taking involves a 30-day public notice requirement and a couple of weeks to collect signatures and approvals from the DNR, Galvin said.
If they can’t qualify for the incidental-takings clause, the first hurdle developers can expect is that any property that contains wetlands will likely require the snake survey.
Because the DNR usually requires surveys be done between May and June – when the snakes or most active – the timeline can be affected immediately.
“Sometimes, because applicants are not willing to wait that long, we will sometimes allow them to do a habitat survey,” Galvin said.
If Butler’s garter snakes are found on your property, or if you allow the DNR to assume that they are so as to avoid an adverse impact on your timeline, the main DNR requirement is a 180-foot buffer to be left around wetlands.
“The snakes use a 180-foot distance around a wetland,” Galvin said. “We allow different things to occur at different times. The snakes go into their upland range during the breeding season. That means construction and other activity can occur in the upland area through the winter that might not be able to occur in the summer. We routinely require silt fencing, and that protects certain important areas. We usually require restoration of areas to restore habitat.”
Depending how a permit is written, Galvin said, a developer may have to either avoid or minimize impact on the snake population.
“There is a difference between avoiding and minimizing,” Galvin said. “We try as much as possible to avoid impacts. To avoid, we might try to change the design of a plan. If there is a subdivision where there is one particular lot that is adjacent to a wetland, we might allow an incidental take.”
Galvin said the best way to avoid the snake is to refrain from developing parcels with wetlands.
“In Waukesha County, a lot of the remaining areas are those wetland areas,” Galvin said. “The more we degrade the wetlands, the more we have ask if this species may be that indicator species that is telling us that we need to slow down. We are just running out of available habitat. Whether you look at it as habitat or developable space, we are running out of it.”
Being snaky. Study could show that snake holding up developments isn’t the protected one.  By Charles Rathmann, of SBT
Developers in Waukesha County have come to fear one wild animal more than any other: the Butler’s garter snake, a threatened species whose presence can spell delays and additional costs on projects.
The snake’s presence – or suspected presence – has delayed and changed the nature of an undetermined number of development projects in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) does not disclose the location of threatened species it identifies in the development permitting process, and developers have been reticent to identify specific projects impacted by the scaly critter.
“It is very complex,” said Bill Carity of Carity Land Development, Brookfield. “It may put my construction project off for a year. I wanted to build it next spring, but I think it will destroy that. From what I understand, we will have to wait at least until after the snake survey in the spring.”
However, this much is certain: telling the Butler’s garter snake from its more ordinary brethren is a challenge. Only a handful of Wisconsin herpetologists are qualified to identify the snake for regulatory purposes.
To further complicate matters, those herpetologists are finding that a hybrid between the Butler’s and more common snake species is common in western Waukesha County and adjacent portions of Walworth and Racine counties.
To address concerns that development projects may be unduly regulated due to the presence of the wrong reptile, researchers in Milwaukee and at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville are trying to fund genetic research that will determine once and for all which snake is which.
The research effort is being headed up by Gary Caspar, who, when he is not working for the Milwaukee Public Museum, does DNR-mandated snake surveys for his own firm, Caspar Consulting, and Gordon Burghardt, an experimental psychology professor with the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
The duo has already collected genetic material from various snakes in southeastern Wisconsin using a small grant from Brookfield Zoo, according to Burghardt, who grew up catching the snakes in the Bay View neighborhood on Milwaukee’s south side.
Burghardt said about $25,000 is needed to complete the research,.
“The existence of a Thamnophis Butleri hybrid with a Thamnophis Radix – the plains garter snake – is one of the things we are exploring,” Burghardt said. “It looks like there is an area going from Racine and Walworth County into southwestern Milwaukee County that has animals that seem to be sort of hybrids. But we still have to confirm this through genetic analysis. We have done the initial work of doing the genetic markers.”
Caspar is confident he has identified snakes properly in the dozen or so snake surveys he has completed on development sites in 2002.
“I have examined more than 1,000 snakes from southeastern Wisconsin,” Caspar said. “I have identified from the morphology what I consider to be the hybrid zone.”
The “hybrid zone” – the range of genetic make-up and characteristics that determine which snake is protected and which is not, according to Caspar, “has been the topic of 100 years of conflicting literature.”
So, could two different scientists have conflicting opinions as to whether the Butler’s garter snake is present on a property?
“Possibly,” Caspar said. “The scientists might interpret the hybrid zone differently.”
Another possibility Caspar and Burghardt will look into with their research is whether the population of the Butler’s garter snake that lives here is a unique subspecies. That would not have the effect some developers might hope for of preventing properties from being affected by threatened species regulation.
“We will also compare Butler’s in Milwaukee with those in a distant parts of its range in Michigan,” Burghardt said. “But it is the ones in the hybrid area that are of immediate concern. We have to see how distinctive the Wisconsin animals are from Butler’s garter snakes in other parts of the range.”
If there is in fact a genetic difference between the Butler’s garter snake in southeastern Wisconsin and snakes known as Butler’s elsewhere, some real estate developers are of the opinion that perhaps it should not be protected.
“We are looking into these things right now,” Jerry Deschane, director of governmental affairs for the Wisconsin Builders Association, said. “We are consulting with some experts and some legal experts about what is coming down.”
Until genetic research is completed, the snake gurus, including Caspar and Burghardt, use appearance and behavior to determine the identity of reptiles turned up during snake surveys.
Scale count, color, markings on the jaw and neck area and the number of ventral scale rows all play a role.
“We are also looking at behavior,” Burghardt said. “That is one thing we are interested in. These species eat different things than other garter snake species.”
Also, when captured, the Butler’s is more likely to simply thrash around than make any organized attempt to escape.
But how do scale counts and thrashing behavior stand up in court? Not as well as DNA evidence. And that is one reason Deschane indicated his organization might be interested in funding research by Burghardt and Caspar.
“That is one of the possibilities,” Deschane said.
According to Burghardt, DNR Cold-blooded Species Program manager Bob Hay had contacted the Greater Milwaukee Foundation (GMF) to determine whether that organization would have grant money available to research the snakes’ genetic makeup.
“They said they were more involved in habitat protection,” Burghardt said. “We tried to get across that the two were related.”
“We have several priorities,” Moore said. “One is promoting conservation, protecting wildlife and endangered species. In those areas, we would have to see what the proposal is and how it steps up to the competition. Whether or not we could encourage a full proposal depends on how competitive the application is.”
Dec. 6, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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