Conditions in Cranberry ideal for snake
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Lots of people would say Cranberry has that just-so mix that makes it the perfect place to raise a family or build a business.
It turns out that it also has the right combination to raise something else: the rare and endangered eastern massasauga rattlesnake.
A springtime habitat survey in a little corner of Cranberry east of Route 19 led a state-certified expert to conclude that the right conditions exist for the rattlesnake to make a home and raise a family there.
Now, the township is working with the state Department of Environmental Resources and the state Fish and Boat Commission to determine what adjustments will have to be made to a multi-million dollar road project planned for that pristine piece of the township.
Intended as a relief valve for Route 19 traffic, the project to connect Heights Drive Extension to Route 19 in northwest Cranberry has been put on hold. Construction had been scheduled to start last fall.
"We're definitely going to have to make some changes to our plan,'' said Duane McKee, assistant township manager.
Though no rattlesnake was actually spotted during the habitat assessment by biologist Ryan Miller, assistant zoologist with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, he found areas suited for the rattlesnake's hibernation -- they like to use crayfish burrows -- as well as areas that would be ideal for the massasauga's foraging and gestation -- they like low grasses, high vegetation and shrubs.
Unfortunately for Cranberry as well as for any rattlesnakes that may live there, the township's long-awaited Northwest Connector road is scheduled to bisect the potential habitat.
Mr. McKee has his doubts that any eastern massasauga are actually living in Cranberry, but he said the township is willing to cooperate with the state and do what needs to be done on the snake's behalf.
He said preliminary discussions have led him to believe the Fish and Boat Commission, which is ultimately responsible for protection of the rattlesnake, will allow the township to build the road but will require a culvert beneath the pavement to allow for the snake's unrestricted movement.
"It will be more expensive," he said, though the planning hasn't gone far enough to produce actual cost estimates.
The culvert normally would have been a simple 42-inch pipe atop gravel, but the commission likely will favor a larger arched culvert with a dirt floor. The sides would be mounted in concrete footers.
Bisecting the snake's habitat along with wetland loss is the most common form of habitat destruction for the rattlesnake, which is no longer than 3 feet and is mostly brown with a blotch pattern down its back. It is venomous but not usually aggressive.
A prairie/grassland species, the eastern massasauga has lived in 19 different locations in Western Pennsylvania throughout history. Of those 19 sites, a 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.
The Cranberry area has been deemed by the state as an "historic site" for the eastern massasauga, meaning that, at some time, a reputable person has spotted one. The question of the massasauga's residency in Cranberry was raised as the township went through the environmental review process for the 9,000-foot connection of Heights Drive Extension to Route 19, a project estimated to cost more than $2 million.
More discussion with state officials is expected in the coming days, Mr. McKee said.
First Published September 11, 2008 5:40 am