August 7, 2008

Nature Reserve Project in Wisconsin Threatens Snakes

By Krista Ledbetter

The Mequon Nature Preserve supports a city bike trail project that could harm the one thing the organization is designed to protect.

The bike trail will connect the Oak Leaf Trail to the south and the Interurban Trail to the north of the preserve. But a small portion of the estimated $400,000, 8,500-foot gravel path proposed for the preserve runs straight through a potential habitat for the Butler's garter snake, a threatened species in Wisconsin.

"We'll do what we can to avoid the incidental take of the snakes," said Rori Paloski of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource's Bureau of Endangered Resources. "But sometimes you have to destroy some of the habitat to make it suitable for species to come back."

That snake habitat wouldn't even exist if not for an ongoing preserve restoration project that made the land suitable for the snakes and attracted a few to the preserve this year, Paloski said. Prior to the restoration, the land was unsuitable.

Kristin Gies, manager of the preserve, argued the purpose of a nature preserve is to educate, and the best way to do that is to give people a reason to visit the preserve. That's the goal of the bike path, she said.

The same scenario existed when the preserve renovated its nature center, which is next to a wetland. Trees were taken down and land was dug up, Gies said.

"Everything in nature is a Catch-22," she said. "We've had to make some tough decisions and weigh the pros and cons, but now the habitat we've created has invited so much more in."

Although the DNR reports the risk of harming the snake is extremely low, the potential still exists.

"I really don't think we'll do any damage to the species because we are taking the proper precautions," Gies said. "There are so few snakes because they just returned this year. I think if we had waited longer, we'd be doing a lot more damage than if we do it now."

Mequon City Engineer Bill Hoppe said he avoided wetlands when he could while designing the path. The one unavoidable spot, he said, happens to be a five-hundredth of an acre of wetland that is suitable garter snake habitat.

"We have this one, small part that is causing all the snags," said Hoppe, who has spent about two years working on the approval process for the trail. In that section, a culvert will be constructed under the trail in a narrow drainage area.

The DNR proposed an incidental-take authorization that will allow the accidental killing of any garter snake for the project. Although the authorization would give Mequon the green light for potentially killing an endangered species, it is not without conditions.

"An incidental take authorization is not a free pass to start killing animals," Paloski said.

Before the permit can be issued, a snake study must be done to determine how many garter snakes are in the area. Gies said only 10 snakes have been found, but Mequon is following the recommendations of the DNR to assure the project is done right.

"We've already put in snake fencing," Gies said, "which deters the snakes from crossing the trail."

The trail, which will follow the power line easement through the preserve south from Donges Bay Road to County Line Road, should then be free of the snakes. They are not dangerous to humans.

Hoppe said the city also must abide by guidelines put in place by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, which gave Mequon a grant to cover 80 percent of the project. WisDOT is awaiting approval from the DNR.

"I don't know why it's been so difficult to put in a simple, gravel, shared-use path," Hoppe said. "But we'll do what we have to do. If I have to beat the bushes, mow it down, survey the land, fill it in a bit and put in a trail, we'll do it."

Originally published by Krista Ledbetter.

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