Snake hunter on the trail
Ryan Miller looks through an area of goldenrod near Heights Drive in Cranberry for evidence of the eastern massasauga rattlesnake. He is one of six people in Pennsylvania who is certified to hunt for the endangered snake.
Ryan Miller uncovers a mud chimney crayfish burrow near Heights Drive in Cranberry.
Share with others:
First, there was the storied "great white hunter," then the Academy Award-winning "Deer Hunter," and then came the made-for-television "The Crocodile Hunter."
But the hunter-du-jour in Cranberry is Ryan E. Miller of Moon -- the "snake hunter."
"Ah, yep, that's what they call me,'' Mr. Miller bashfully acknowledged in the days before a snake hunt that could determine the course of a multimillion dollar road project that's been on Cranberry's to-do list for a long time.
Mr. Miller's mission: to determine whether the pesky -- and endangered -- eastern massasauga rattlesnake is living in Cranberry or whether environmental conditions in the township are a suitable habitat for the rare-and-getting-rarer rattler.
In the meantime, Cranberry waits.
The Northwest Connector road project, scheduled to begin in the fall, has been put on hold until it's decided whether the new road poses a threat to the eastern massasauga or its habitat. That could send township officials back to the drawing board to redesign the road that is to be a relief valve for Route 19 congestion.
"This is just the way it goes. There's no sense in getting upset about it,'' said Assistant Township Manager Duane McKee.
At 26, Mr. Miller carries the uncommon designation from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission as a "qualified massasauga surveyor," a person certified to scout for eastern massasaugas and their habitat. Only six such experts are recognized by the commission, said Christopher A. Urban, chief of the commission's natural diversity section in Bellefonte, Centre County.
The massasauga is no longer than 3 feet and is mostly brown, with a blotch pattern down its back. It's venomous but considered nonaggressive.
"I've stepped right over them and not noticed they were there. They rely highly on their camouflage and would rather sit still than use their rattle to announce their presence,'' Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Miller, of Moon, is an assistant zoologist with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy at Washington's Landing on the North Side.
He also works on-call as a deputy wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission in western Allegheny County, and he serves on a contract basis with Moon Area High School as technical director for the Moon Drama Club.
He has a bachelor's degree in environmental biology from Clarion University and an associate degree from West Virginia University in wildlife management, making his job with the nonprofit conservancy a good match. The agency has two primary missions in Western Pennsylvania: It acts as a land trust to protect and preserve green space in the region, and it participates in the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program on projects that involve the state's threatened and endangered species and ecosystems. The largest part of that program is the annual county inventory in which biologists survey the natural areas and resources of the region.
Mr. Miller began his education about the massasauga when he spent a summer working on the conservancy's "Eastern Massasauga Radio Telemetry Project," a followup to a federally funded statewide inventory of endangered species in 2003.
The telemetry project involved implanting devices on massasauga rattlers that allow scientists to track them. "Since 2005, I've had more than 500 encounters with the snake. Not every encounter was with a different snake necessarily, but I've seen them doing different things in different situations and that's what makes me an 'expert,' " Mr. Miller said.
He learned that they are very habitat-specific: Where they were located historically, that's where they remain, if the habitat hasn't been degraded by humans or natural changes.
"The most common form of habitat destruction is wetland loss or fragmentation of the habitat," he said. These are the kinds of impacts a road project can have.
A prairie/grassland species, the massasauga has lived in 19 different locations in Western Pennsylvania throughout history. Of those 19 sites, the 2003 inventory and subsequent telemetry project discovered only four sites that still exist within the state: two in Butler County and two in Venango County.
As a species that has been designated by Pennsylvania as endangered, it is protected by law. It cannot be killed, nor can its habitat be destroyed.
Mr. Miller won't divulge the location of existing sites, but he said the area he has been commissioned to study in Cranberry is not one of them.
The Cranberry area, however, is designated an historic site: That means that, at some time, a reputable person has noted that the massasauga has been seen there.
Although a population of the snake wasn't found in 2003, it could have been overlooked. "These snakes are super hard to find. They can live in populations of 10 or less and can go undetected for years at a time. So, as an extra protection and precaution for these endangered snakes, [the state] requires this double-check,'' he said.
The question of the massasauga's residency in Cranberry was raised as the township went through the environmental review process for the connection of Heights Drive Extension to Route 19 in the northwest section of Cranberry.
That drew a directive from the Fish and Boat Commission in April. "They basically told us to go and look for this snake,'' Mr. McKee said.
According to the commission's Mr. Urban, knowing the historic and existing presence of the massasauga in Butler County, coupled with environmental information filed by the project consultant, it was decided there was "some potential for the presence of massasauga habitat."
"In order to more thoroughly evaluate actual field conditions, we asked [the township] for a habitat assessment," he said.
That assessment doesn't involve someone from the Cranberry public works department going out to look for rattlesnakes under rocks. "We needed to find an expert," Mr. McKee said.
In the meantime, the brakes were put on the planned roadway -- 9,000 feet of pavement extending from Heights Drive Extension to Route 19 near Deener's Farm Market. The road is estimated to cost $2 million, not including property acquisition, which could cost more than $50,000.
The road has been on the township's long-range plan for a decade, and money finally had been budgeted to do the work this year.
"We know there's no way we can get started this year. There's no sense in wasting design money when we know we could end up having to change our plans," Mr. McKee said.
Mr. Miller expects to have the data from his May 30 Cranberry survey to the state commission within two weeks and Cranberry should hear one way or another next month. "We're really hoping this is the alignment we can proceed with, but if it isn't, there were alternates that we can pursue,'' said Jason Kratsas, the township's point man on the project.
In the meantime, Cranberry will write a check to the conservancy for $700 -- the going price for a modern-day snake hunter.
Looking for the eastern massasauga is not so much finding the snake as finding its habitat, Mr. Miller said.
"Really, what I'm commissioned to do is to go out and survey the site and say yes or no that it's a good habitat and yes or no that the snakes can actually be there,'' he said.
Equipped with a global positioning system, a range finder and some maps, he looks at the proposed area of development and gauges what impact the project would have on the supposed rattlesnake habitat.
"I will answer whether it's even a possibility that the snake could be there. Finding an actual snake would be a bonus,'' he said.
The eastern massasauga came to Pennsylvania from the Midwest, settling into prairie-like areas created in this region when glaciers receded following the Ice Age. Rolling hills and old agricultural fields with overgrown hay are the foundation of a massasauga habitat. Add to that some crayfish burrows in the mud along stream banks where the rattlers like to hole up during the winter, and you have a perfect environment for the endangered snake, which subsists on small rodents.
"Having an endangered species in Western Pennsylvania is kind of nice. It's grown to be a love of mine," Mr. Miller said of the elusive rattler.
He doesn't consider himself the ultimate arbiter over the fate of big and expensive road projects. "I don't see it that way. I'm hired as a private contractor to provide information to the state. That's what it comes down to,'' he said.
First Published June 12, 2008 12:00 am