Tuesday, January 11, 2011

An Enlightened View of Rattlesnakes, Despite Tragedy

The following story was published on the Caledonia Argus web site a southeastern Minnesota new outlet. The snake involved is most likely the Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus.

By Charlie Warner
Argus News Editor

What started out as a tragedy when two of Ken and Terry Visger’s miniature dachshunds died after being bitten by rattlesnakes resulted in a bluff prairie restoration project designed to make life better for all parties involved.

“The bluffs behind our farmstead were choked off with cedars,” Ken said, as he looked out at the majestic bluffs that surround his farm just off Tschumper Road in Hokah Township. “When the cedars get too thick, they kill off all the vegetation under them and also destroy the natural rattlesnake habitat.”

When the Visgers bought the picturesque farm tucked in a steep valley more than 30 years ago, they really didn’t have issues with rattlesnakes. They knew there were snakes living in the massive bluffs, but for the most part the snakes minded their own business and the Visgers minded theirs.

Unfortunately, as the bluffs continued to be overtaken by the cedars, the rattlers moved down from the bluffs and closer to their house. The Visgers are dog lovers and enjoyed the company the small, but unintimidated dachshund breed brings.

“These little guys aren’t afraid of anything,” Ken said, as he petted one of his small pets. “When they saw a snake in the yard, they went after it. We had two dogs go after rattlers that we in our yard. They both were bitten on the head and both died very agonizing deaths.”

One of the dogs was bitten by a snake that had wandered right up next to the Visgers’ house.

“It wasn’t like we were snake haters,” Ken pointed out. “I’ve been an outdoorsman all of my life. But we knew something had to be done.”

DNR Specialist Jamie Edwards heard about the Visgers’ issues with rattlesnakes, paid them a visit and came up with a solution. The bluffs surrounding their home, especially the bluffs facing south, received a vigorous trim job. Many of the cedars were cut down and burned last winter.

“We haven’t had any problems with rattlesnakes ever since,” Terry noted.

In the process 145 acres of the Visger farm has been enrolled  in a state conservation program that protects rare bluff prairie and forest habitat.

Bluff prairie, often called goat prairie, is one of the rarest habitat types in Minnesota. The Visgers finalized a conservation easement with the non-profit Minnesota Land Trust that will protect the prairie but keep the land on the tax rolls – a win-win for conservation and the public’s investment.

Visger’s land is situated just five miles above the Root River and is in close proximity to other protected lands owned by the State of Minnesota, including Mound Prairie Scientific and Natural Area, Root River Wildlife Management Area and Mound Prairie Wildlife Management Area. The property includes grassland and restored prairie, forest and a small amount of cultivated land. The conservation easement ensures that the protected land cannot be divided and the existing prairie must continue as prairie and be managed in accordance with an approved habitat management plan.

“This is certainly a worthwhile thing to do,” Ken said. “I’ve believed in conservation all of my life. I hope this program will help get rid of some of the stereotypes people have about state-run programs.

“I didn’t do this for the publicity. But if by me doing this others will get involved in conservation programs, that’s great,” Ken added.  

While many people associate prairie with southwestern Minnesota, the landscape of the Mississippi River blufflands contains unique prairie systems found nowhere else in the state. According to the State’s Wildlife Action Plan, this region has the highest concentration of species in greatest conservation need.  This is based in part on the rich diversity of land cover including bluff prairies.  

Located generally on the south side of the bluffs, the sun-warmed limestone attracts reptiles, including the western timber rattlesnake.  Today, these unique prairie and grassland systems are found largely on private land, making private landowners an important partner in the preservation of this rare habitat.

This is the first project of its kind completed under the Minnesota Land Trust’s Bluffland Prairie Protection Initiative.  This initiative is being funded in part by a grant from the Outdoor Heritage Fund as recommended by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council (LSOHC). Funding was used to cover costs associated with the transaction and to ensure that the easement will be enforced in perpetuity.

The Minnesota Land Trust is a non-profit conservation organization working to preserve Minnesota’s natural and scenic heritage through public and private partnerships. It is the state’s only nationally-accredited land trust and operates statewide through regional offices in Duluth, Ely, Red Wing and St. Paul.  More information can be found online at www.mnland.org.  

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