Politics Put Status Of Snake at Risk

Naturalist Jim Hyatt and Vanessa Torti of the Milwaukee Public Museum release a relocated Butler's garter snake into an artificial den.
Naturalist Jim Hyatt and Vanessa Torti of the Milwaukee Public Museum release a relocated Butler's garter snake into an artificial den. (Photos By Gary Casper)
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 30, 2006

The slender brown-and-yellow Butler's garter snake is a mild-mannered creature that spends its time sheltering in burrows and eating earthworms. But it has sparked a heated dispute between the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and state legislators.

State Sen. Glenn Grothman wants to see the snake removed from the state's register of threatened species, because, he says, the snakes are plentiful and their protected status has cramped economic development and community projects such as a high school sports field and an aquatic complex in Milwaukee suburbs.

If the Department of Natural Resources does not significantly reduce the amount of protected snake habitat and set in motion the garter snake's removal from the list by the end of the month, a joint legislative committee that reviews administrative rules will, legislators have said, invoke a law to suspend the protected status.

Department of Natural Resources officials and conservationists say that would be nationally unprecedented and could set the stage for attacks on state protected-species listings nationwide.

"This sets a slippery-slope precedent," said Natural Resources spokeswoman Erin Celello. "If they can delist the garter snake, they can delist other species. It's pretty clear this is politically motivated and not in the interest of good science."

Glaciers that swept across the Midwest tens of thousands of years ago separated garter-snake populations into groups that developed into different species. Though the casual onlooker may confuse the Butler's garter snake with its more common relative, the plains garter snake, they are genetically distinct.

Small populations of the Butler's garter snake exist in the swath of southeast Wisconsin and in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Ontario.

In 1997, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources labeled the Butler's garter snake a threatened species, meaning the animal is given certain protections to keep it from becoming endangered.

It is unclear how many Butler's garter snakes live in Wisconsin. Grothman says there are plenty.

"The snake is everywhere. There are probably as many snakes as people," he said. "But say a farmer wants to sell his land. He's worked his whole life and wants to make some money. But the developer won't buy the land because it might have snakes on it."

Conservationists say the number of snakes is meaningless. The important figure is how many protected habitats exist for the Butler's garter snake.

"If population insults like disease, predation and drought all come together in one habitat, it doesn't matter if there are 100 snakes or 10,000, they will all be wiped out," said Gary S. Casper, a herpetologist who advises developers and the EPA on snake and reptile habitats.

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