BLM teams with researchers to protect midget faded rattlesnake

by Marian Lyman Kirst

Summer snake hunting in western Colorado is a race against the sun. The reptiles emerge early from their dens to soak up dawn's dull warmth. But once the hillsides hum with heat, they'll split for the shadows. "We better get going," says biologist Josh Parker of Georgia's Clayton State University when I meet his small team of "herpers" in Grand Junction at 5 a.m. one June morning.

The three men -- Parker; Stephen Spear, a biologist with the Orianne Society, a Georgia-based reptile conservation group, who is clad in knee-high leather and nylon snake boots (equipped with 16 inches of "fang-deflecting armor"); and Arizona State University student David Vardukyan -- are a caffeinated whirlwind. Water bottles, snacks and maps fly like so much jetsam into an SUV stickered with rock-band decals. Its vanity plate reads "CONCOLR," an homage to the team's curious quarry: Crotalus oreganus concolor, the midget faded rattlesnake.

As its name implies, the midget faded is much smaller than most other rattlers, averaging 20 inches long, and its markings -- which resemble liver-shaped drops of dried blood -- pale over time. Edward Abbey once wrote that its "insulting name … may explain (its) alleged bad temper," a reputation more likely born of the species' potent neurotoxic venom, among the most powerful of any North American viper.

Midget fadeds are actually relatively docile and reclusive creatures, preferring creviced dens in rocky outcrops to burrows in open areas. Parker, who sports a graying tussock of chin whiskers and a silver barbell through one eyebrow, describes the snakes the same way you might afternoon tea -- "delightful."

Considered a sensitive species in both Wyoming and Colorado, the midget faded is increasingly threatened by energy development. Its range, which includes portions of Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, overlies rich oil and gas deposits and has areas crosshatched by wind farms. But there's been little research on how such projects affect the snakes. In fact, most of what's known about the species comes from Parker's dissertation on its Wyoming populations. That's something the herpers -- and the Bureau of Land Management, which has dispatched them -- hope to change.

As we head for the canyons beyond the city, Spear unfolds BLM maps marked with likely locations of midget faded dens and hibernacula, or winter shelters, for which we'll spend the morning scouting. Protecting dens -- which can house hundreds of snakes at once -- is key to preserving midget faded populations because they rely more heavily on them than do other rattlers, as communal areas during adolescence, gestation and other vulnerable life stages such as shedding, Spear explains.

The Colorado office of the BLM has been aware of the species' existence on the Western Slope since 2000, when a local natural gas boom was ramping up. But the snakes were so seldom encountered that they rarely came up as a management issue. Then, in 2010, a road-killed midget faded rattler, and later its den site, were found just a few meters from a well pad near Rangely. With the BLM's White River field office preparing for as many as 21,000 new wells in the surrounding Piceance Basin in the next 20 years, the agency knew it needed to find ways to protect the species. The data the herpers collect will help it guide development away from areas the snakes need most. After all, nobody -- not the BLM, the energy companies, nor the herpers themselves -- wants to see the midget faded decline enough to end up on the endangered species list, which comes with onerous land-use restrictions. Says Spear: "It impresses me that (the agency) is working on a species that doesn't bring in a lot of money and is often vilified."

The team's Colorado work is an extension of a Wyoming-based effort started in 2009. Wyoming's midget faded populations -- already struggling due in part to interstate and road building, as well as the submersion of habitat beneath Flaming Gorge Reservoir -- are restricted to a finger of habitat around the reservoir. With thousands of acres in the region now being considered for wind, oil and gas development, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department teamed up with Parker and Spear to map midget faded dens and key foraging areas, and determine how those places are connected in hopes of understanding and buffering possible impacts to the species.

Spear developed a GIS model that predicts probable den sites based on records of midget faded sightings; the snakes' narrow habitat needs, such as sandstone outcroppings; and other environmental variables like vegetation and elevation. Then he and Parker surveyed predicted sites to verify the model's results, identifying 12 new midget faded dens and collecting life history and genetic data from snakes encountered along the way. Their preliminary findings suggest that the dense networks of roads serving energy projects are a significant problem even if seldom used. Studies have found that just five cars per four hours will kill half the snakes trying to cross, blocking the creatures from key foraging grounds, which for midget fadeds can be as far as one kilometer from dens, and from mixing their genes with those of other families. Also, seismic surveying for oil and gas, which involves detonating underground explosives, may collapse dens.

Agency officials felt Spear's model might offer a way forward in western Colorado as well. Often, BLM surveys simply determine areas appropriate for development based on a species' presence or absence -- with protected habitat determined by a line drawn around areas where the creature has been spotted. But that method tends to miss important habitat features like den sites, Spear explains, while unnecessarily "including a lot of areas that are not good habitat," where energy could safely be developed.

Spear's model provides more precise data that will make planning and mitigation measures more effective, says White River field office spokesman David Boyd. Companies hoping to develop in probable snake habitat will be required to survey for the species prior to any surface disturbances and to avoid possible hibernacula or den sites by up to 660 feet. Companies will also be required to manage infrastructure in ways that reduce the risk of killing snakes, including gating roads to allow only well-pad traffic, says Boyd.

At a narrow canyon footing a rocky slope, Parker pulls the SUV over. We smear on sunscreen, swig water and grab gear, including mammoth metal pincers that resemble something a giantess might use to pluck her eyebrows -- "snake tweezers," Vardukyan says.

The standard search procedure is to spread out evenly and walk for one hour in a straight line, looking for snakes and their traces: a shed skin or sinuous scribble in the dust. When someone spots a faded midget, the team takes a GPS location and grabs and bags the serpent (with the snake tweezers, of course). Back at the truck, they coax the creature into a tube so they can safely measure and weigh it, estimate its age, determine its sex and reproductive condition, and count its rattles. They also take a blood sample for the species' genetic archive, and a venom sample for a Colorado biologist investigating the neurotoxin's potential biomedical applications (compounds in Gila monster venom, for example, are used to treat diabetes) and the genetic differences between closely related rattler species.

By the end of the summer, the team will have found evidence of 22 dens, including 18 live and three road-killed midget fadeds and one shed skin. They will use this information to refine the model when they ground truth it in summer 2014.

But we don't hit pay dirt until the second morning of our hunt, in an area where Spear's model predicts dens. As the mesas begin to blush pink, we set out across what seems like the perfect midget faded haunt: a south-facing bank, crowned in rocky outcrops and flanked with sandstone slabs. Still a novice at searching out venomous snakes, I gleefully -- and heedlessly -- push my face into rock shadows and under ledges as if nosing out a lost shoe.

"Hey! I got one!" Parker calls out as the rest of us stumble back across the slope to converge on his find. "Be as quiet as possible and give it space," Parker says as we whisper cameras from pockets. "Where is it?" I ask.

"Just below that slab of sandstone," Spear says, pointing.

"Where?"

"Right there!" the men say in unison. Finally, my search pattern resolves, and where there was nothing but sun and sand there now lies a piffling puddle of snake, hunkered and still as a carving. Parker guesses it is a male, between 3 and 5 years old.

"It's sleeping," he says. Moving closer, I'm startled to find its needle-slit eyes staring back at me. "They sleep with their eyes open," Parker explains, sensing my hesitation. "If it was awake, it'd be tongue-flicking, trying to smell us." Reassured, I lean in again, camera ready. But it's too late; the statue sparks to life and bolts past my left knee. I scream and leap down the slope, heart in my stomach.

"Don't worry," Spear says, between chuckles. "It wasn't coming at you; you just happened to be between it and its hidey hole."

"Poor little guy," Vardukyan says, shaking his head.

Parker nods. "You really scared it."

He points to a juniper where the snake has sought refuge in a snarl of roots. The faded midget peers up at us and rattles out its warning song, the bone-dry purl of a living rain stick.

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