CASSOPOLIS - Thick, black mud squishes underfoot and tall reeds sway overhead, crowding this remote wetland trail at the Edward Lowe Foundation in Cass County.
Eric Hileman tramps along under the blue autumn sky, carrying live cargo in a white, plastic bucket over his shoulder.
He stops next to a poison sumac tree, its leaves a mix of green, yellow, red and brown, and sets the bucket on the ground. He unscrews the container’s red cap and lifts a cloth bag from inside.
Hileman opens the bag and carefully tips it toward the ground. An eastern massasauga rattlesnake lands gently on the grass beneath the tree.
The 2-foot-long female lies there calmly for several minutes, the bright sun beating down on the brown saddle-like markings on her back.
The snake, which had been captured in this spot a few days earlier, seems unbothered by the five people standing nearby. She doesn’t buzz her rattle or raise her triangular head. She just flicks her tongue and, after several minutes, coils under herself, slithering slowly out of sight into the dense grass of the wetland.
Despite the scary reputation associated with rattlesnakes, this docile display is typical of the massasauga, which is the only venomous snake species native to Michigan and northern Indiana.
“There’s that largely undeserved reputation,” said Hileman, a Northern Illinois University doctoral student who is studying the species here.
“Sure, they’re venomous,” he said, “but they don’t go out of their way to cause harm. They’re just trying to make a living like anyone else.”
It’s becoming more difficult for the massasauga to make a living.
The snake exists in a range that stretches from western New York and southern Ontario into Iowa and northeastern Missouri, but the species is listed as endangered in all but one of the states where it’s found. It’s also a candidate for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Michigan, where the massasauga is listed as a species of special concern, is considered the snake’s stronghold.
And the Lowe Foundation, an organization that focuses on fostering entrepreneurship but also supports conservation, has come to be known as a premier spot for studying a healthy massasauga population. Hileman and other researchers have identified more than 300 of the snakes on the 2,600-acre property near Cassopolis.
“It’s a species that’s in a lot more peril than people think,” said Mike McCuistion, director of physical resources at the foundation. “One of the known reasons for that is loss of habitat.”
Lowe Foundation staff are encouraging the property’s massasauga population by planting prairie grasses and using prescribed burns when the snakes are hibernating to prevent hardwood forests from encroaching on wetlands.
Since 2009, the Lowe Foundation also has been a field research site and meeting place for the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Species Survival Plan. The EMR SSP is a consortium of 22 zoos, including the Potawatomi Park Zoo in South Bend, working to preserve the genetic diversity of the captive massasauga population.
Joanne Earnhardt, a conservation biologist at the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology in Chicago and coordinator of the EMR SSP, said people sometimes question why anyone would want to save a venomous snake species.
Massasauga bites, though extremely rare, do occur occasionally. One of the snakes bit a 4-year-old boy in August after he stepped on it at a playground in LaGrange County. The youngster survived, but he had to spend a week in a Fort Wayne hospital.
The massasauga, however, is better known for being shy and rarely seen by humans - most of whom don’t enjoy spending time in the swampy areas it prefers.
And, besides providing a check on rodent populations, Earnhardt said the massasauga fills a key role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem in the areas where it lives.
“They’re both predators and prey for other species,” she said, “so they help keep the whole system in balance.”
But they’re more than that, too, Earnhardt added.
“This is really an iconic species of Midwest wetlands and prairie,” she said. “It would be a real tragedy if the species disappeared from the Midwest.”
Staff writer Kevin Allen: