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ARCHIVED Weekly News Published December 10, 2019

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Rare Snakes Benefit from Habitat Work and Long-term Monitoring in 2019

An endangered astern massasauga rattlesnake. - Photo credit: Rori Paliski
An endangered astern massasauga rattlesnake.Photo credit: Rori Paloski

Contact(s): Rich Staffen, Conservation Biologist, 608-266-4340, Rori Paloski, Conservation Biologist, 608-264-6040,

MADISON, Wis. - Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes are snug in underground burrows for the winter while state natural area crews are busy improving habitat above-ground for the endangered species and analyzing data from population and health checks in 2019.

One of two rattlesnake species in Wisconsin, massasaugas historically occurred throughout southern and west-central Wisconsin but were aggressively killed by people in the 19th and 20th centuries, spurred by bounties until the 1970s.

Massasaugas are now believed to be limited to several isolated wetlands in Wisconsin; monitoring and habitat work began in earnest in 2019 on public land to help sustain and aid their recovery.

"One of our biggest discoveries in 2019 was finding massasaugas in a habitat that DNR staff and State Natural Area crews had just improved for them," says Rich Staffen, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conservation biologist. "It shows that when you build it, they will come."

View Slideshow SLIDE SHOW | 11 photos

Eastern massasauga rattlesnake monitoring

Eastern massasaugas are a small, thick-bodied snake with vertical pupils and a triangular-shaped head. They are found in wetlands and some adjacent open uplands during their active season.

While massasaugas have venom, their bites are seldom lethal and there is no record in Wisconsin of humans dying from their bite. Massasaugas were listed as state endangered in 1975 and federally threatened in 2016.

To survey for them, state and federal conservation biologists in 2019 walked in a line over prime massasauga habitat and used snake tongs to capture the reptiles during spring emergence. They weighed and measured the snakes and implanted a microchip that can be detected by a scanner if the snakes are recaptured in subsequent years.

The monitoring will help track population and health trends and assure the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that the management the DNR is doing is benefitting the endangered snakes, said Rori Paloski, another DNR conservation biologist involved in the surveying.

Rori Paloski, shown here with an eastern massasauga rattlesnake, talks about this rare species in our Wild Wisconsin - Off The Record podcast titled
Rori Paloski, shown here with an eastern massasauga rattlesnake, talks about this rare species in our Wild Wisconsin - Off The Record podcast titled "Saving Wisconsin's Special Species."Photo credit: Morgan Greary

Pilot monitoring in 2018 unearthed a massasauga with snake fungal disease. The newly identified disease has the potential to decimate local snake populations. It can prevent snakes from effectively feeding and drinking, and it makes them more susceptible to predators by extending basking periods, Paloski said. Fortunately, none of the snakes captured, measured and tagged in 2019 were found to have snake fungal disease.

One major challenge for the eastern massasauga is maintaining a suitable open upland habitat. That is where State Natural Area crews come in. "SNA crews are enhancing open upland sites adjacent to wetlands to provide gestating habitat for gravid (pregnant) females," Paloski said.

This fall and winter, when the snakes are inactive, crews will mow and cut trees and brush from known habitat on State Natural Areas. Brush and young trees are bulldozed into piles on-site and around the edges to create a safe cover that the sun filters through for basking rattlesnakes.

Work by the DNR's wildlife management staff to create habitat on wildlife areas for game species, and routine forest management done by the DNR forestry staff can also end up benefitting the endangered snake.

Read more stories of how DNR Natural Heritage Conservation staff, partners and citizen scientists are helping rare species in the just-released 2019 Field Notes.

Off the Record: Wild Wisconsin Podcast Features Interview About Massasauga Rattlesnakes

Learn more about eastern massasauga rattlesnakes and how the DNR and partners are helping conserve them in the Wild Wisconsin - Off The Record podcast "Saving Wisconsin's Special Species."



DNR Encourages Proper Sharps Disposal with Online Resources

Sharps - Photo credit: DNR
Sharps in municipal solid waste cause a big hazard to workers.Photo credit: DNR

Contact(s): Jennifer Semrau, DNR Waste Diversion Coordinator, 608-267-7550,

MADISON, Wis. - December is Sharps Awareness Month, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wants to remind residents that medical sharps, such as needles, syringes and lancets, cannot be disposed of in the trash or recycling bins. The DNR has a new interactive sharps collection site map to help connect people with sites near them.

"By disposing of sharps at designated collection sites, you are preventing needlestick injuries to workers at solid waste and recycling facilities," says DNR Waste Reduction and Diversion Coordinator Jennifer Semrau. "Even when sharps are in containers, the equipment at recycling facilities can break them open, exposing workers doing hand sorting to sticks from used needles."

Semrau added that workers who experience a needlestick incident typically undergo months of testing for infectious diseases such as hepatitis B and human immunodeficiency virus.

In a 2019 survey, almost 40 percent of Wisconsin's recycling facilities reported sharps as a top contaminant in the recycling stream. "When sharps are discovered in the recycling facility, the sorting line is shut down until everything is cleaned up, costing money and time," Semrau said.

To help residents, the DNR recently transformed its list of sharps collection sites into an interactive map, which can be found here. Some sharp collection sites, like pharmacies and public health departments, are required to register with the DNR. Currently, there are over 300 sites statewide, and the DNR is working to make the list more comprehensive. Calling ahead to verify hours and whether there is a fee is recommended.

Storing sharps correctly at home is also essential to proper disposal. Using a designated sharps container, which some collection sites sell, is highly recommended. However, a rigid, puncture-resistant plastic container with a secure lid, such as a detergent bottle, can work. Labeling containers with "biohazard," "infectious waste" or "sharps" ensures the closed container is handled correctly. For detergent bottles or similar plastic containers, adding "do not recycle" avoids confusion.

Visit the DNR website here for more information.



Learn How Plants and Animals Weather Winter in The DNR's Latest Issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine

In cold weather, most of the water in deciduous trees such as oaks is stored as sap in the root system to avoid freezing. It's just one way plants and animals outwit winter, Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine notes. - Photo credit: Contributed by Len Harris
In cold weather, most of the water in deciduous trees such as oaks is stored as sap in the root system to avoid freezing. It's just one way plants and animals outwit winter, Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine notes.Photo credit: Contributed by Len Harris

Contact(s): Andrea Zani, managing editor, 608-267-9517,; or Kathy Kahler, associate editor, 608-266-2625,

MADISON, Wis. - Winter will not officially begin until Dec. 21, but coping with the season has commenced. How do Wisconsin's plants and animals endure the often harsh conditions? Find out in "Masters of Mother Nature", the cover story in the latest issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, featuring some of the more interesting adaptations species employ to weather winter.

<i>Winter Wisconsin Natural Resources</i> magazine - Photo credit: DNR
Winter Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Other stories in the Winter issue include a look at the Department of Natural Resource's Wisconsin Wetland Conservation Trust, which has several projects underway to restore vital wetlands; details on how DNR is working to ensure clean drinking water around the state in this Year of Clean Drinking Water; and a feature on a longtime wildlife rehabilitation program -- and the dedicated 83-year-old woman who runs it.

"Preventive measures" tells how conservation efforts are aiding at-risk species. Those efforts include the work of the DNR Natural Heritage Conservation Program, which also shares its 2019 Field Notes in this issue. The report highlights success stories around the state, from whooping cranes to wood turtles, and spotlights just a few of the DNR staff and volunteers behind the NHC's important conservation actions.

Secretary-designee Preston Cole offers his input on this issue, including opening remarks and a message on climate change and clean energy. In regular features, "Back in the day" recalls the history of the American Birkebeiner ski race, set for Feb. 22 in northern Wisconsin. Additionally, "Outside in Wisconsin" heads to the beach. That is, Big Foot Beach State Park in Lake Geneva, where ice fishing and sledding are among the winter activities.

Also, in this issue, find the Friends of Wisconsin State Parks 2020 Calendar pullout. Winning photos from the annual FWSP contest are included, highlighting beautiful scenes from state parks, forests, trails and recreation areas.

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine is published four times a year and is available via subscription for $8.97. Call 1-800-678-9472, or find stories and subscribe online at


Read more: Previous Weekly News

Last Revised: Tuesday, December 10, 2019

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