It’s shy, docile, spends its winters in crawfish burrows, and its home near Carlyle Lake is the last place this threatened species is known to live in Illinois.
It’s the Eastern Massasauga, a special type of rattlesnake that experts working at Carlyle Lake are trying their best to protect.
The Massasauga predates the man-made Carlyle Lake, which was completed in 1967. About 50 miles east of St. Louis, the 15-mile-long lake serves as a park for fishermen, hunters, bird watchers, campers and other recreation seekers.
Over the years, the snake lost wetland habitat nationwide to farming and development, with nearly half of its population disappearing in the past few decades, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2016, the service listed the snake as threatened, meaning it’s likely the species will become endangered in the near future.
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These days, the Massasauga’s habitat in Illinois is relegated to a tiny sliver of land wedged between woods, a road and a cornfield near the Carlyle Lake’s Dam East South Shore.
Though populations still exist in 10 U.S. states and parts of Ontario, they have declined severely. Those numbers could decline by as much as 90 percent of what they were in the 1990s over the next 50 years, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
But experts at Carlyle Lake are doing their part to create a few more acres of habitat for the Massasauga, even though it has taken the better part of 15 years to secure money for the project, said Bob Hammel, superintendent of Eldon Hazlet park on the shores of Lake Carlyle.
Ecologist Thomas Keevin, retired from the U.S. Army Corps St. Louis District, says a lot has changed even as officials waited for funding.
“This is the last known population in Illinois. There were, just probably 10 years ago, four to five populations (in Illinois),” Keevin said. “We are trying to do a lot of stuff here at Carlyle to help the survival of the species.”
The project is a relatively simple one that could have a significant impact for the snake’s population at Carlyle Lake. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the lake, plans to work with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to move a single road.
Vehicles are the No. 1 of cause of Massasauga deaths at Carlyle Lake, Keevin says. Moving the road will extend the habitat and remove the threat that its dwindling numbers will be run over.
With the barrier of the road removed, the snake’s habitat would increase to roughly three acres, giving it more room to hibernate, move seasonally, forage and reproduce.
It’s not clear exactly how many snakes live in the Carlyle Lake Massasauga outpost, the ecologist said, but eliminating cars in a hotspot for the snakes should result in increased numbers.
Park visitors aren’t likely to see the Massasauga even if the snake population increases. It’s a particularly docile and secretive breed of rattlesnake, Keevin said.
“This particular species is small and very, very shy,” Keevin said. “This is one that really wants to stay away from you.”
Between 1 and 2 million people visit the park annually and only one person in the lake’s history has been bitten by a rattlesnake, Keevin said. A young man who had one too many drinks decided he could pick up a rattlesnake and was subsequently bitten, Keevin said.
Changes for parkgoers
Most park visitors probably won’t notice much of a change to the re-routed road once it’s complete. Workers will tear up the existing road and, using the material as a base for the new one, which will be rebuilt along the route of an existing service road less than a quarter-mile to the west.
Roughly 300 trees will have to be cut down to make room for the new road.
“Park visitors will have better access to recreational areas and it will be more aesthetically pleasing,” said Teri Allen, chief of the U.S. Army Corps St. Louis Environmental Compliance Section.
The road leads to an old campground in the former South Shore State Park, which was operated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. A lack of funding lead to the park’s disrepair and the U.S. Army Corps eventually taking it over.
Army Corps officials hope to eventually reopen as many as 30 campsites there in the future, depending on funding, says Doug Wasmuth, a natural resource specialist for the Army Corps at Carlyle Lake. It has been 25 years since campers could stay in that part of the lake, which is now only open for day use, Wasmuth said.
The area makes for an ideal campground because it’s one of the only areas of the park that doesn’t flood, Wasmuth said.
The new road and possibly new campgrounds could benefit parkgoers, but officials are focusing for now on the Eastern Massasauga.
“First off, the snake was here before we were here,” Keevin said. “It’s an important part of our ecosystem. It feeds on the shrews and the moles and the mice, and in turn they’re fed on by the hawks and the owls ... but more importantly this is the last place in Illinois that you can find these snakes.”
The project, with an estimated cost of $134,000, could be completed by the end of the winter, said Allen, the Army Corps Environmental Compliance Section chief.
The public review portion of the study ended earlier this week. Next, experts will prepare a final assessment, which they will present to the colonel of the Army Corps St. Louis District, Allen said. If Col. Bryan K. Sizemore signs the final assessment, the project has the go-ahead to get started.
Work on rerouting the road could begin as soon as Oct. 1 — after the endangered Indiana bat goes into hibernation and won’t be affected by cutting down trees.