GUILFORD -- The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department has partnered with the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation and the Vermont Agency of Transportation to provide habitat for a rare snake species near a truck weigh station on Interstate 91.
Doug Blodgett, snake biologist for Fish & Wildlife, has been working with VTrans to create habitat for North American Racers, a rare, black, non-venomous snake that is found in only a few towns in the southeast corner of Vermont. Racers are a threatened species in Vermont and they are listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Vermont’s Wildlife Action Plan.
The Racers were discovered near the site where an old truck weigh station was scheduled to be rebuilt and expanded. As part of the permitting process, VTrans agreed to use some scrap material and equipment from the project to improve habitat for the threatened snakes.
"Racers are a protected species in Vermont, so we wanted to work with VTrans to make sure this development didn’t harm these snakes," said Blodgett. "In the end, we have worked together to dramatically improve habitat conditions for them and potentially a variety of other snake species."
VTrans used overburden from the project -- rocks and boulders that are normally considered waste -- to build places for the Racers to hibernate in winter, basking areas for them to warm up their body temperature, and grassy travel corridors for them to move and feed. The travel corridor was created on the adjacent Roaring Brook Wildlife Management Area, which is owned by the Fish & Wildlife Department and is managed as wildlife habitat.
By leaving material onsite for the snakes rather than transporting it away, VTrans was able to save tens of thousands of dollars on the cost of the project. Racers feed on rodents, insects, and other small animals.
"This was an interesting experiment that resulted in us all learning a lot about creating quality snake habitat," said Blodgett. "It was a very cooperative, multi-agency project, with Forests, Parks and Recreation District Forester Tim Morton working closely with VTrans excavator operators to guide the construction of the habitat improvements."
The goal was to create an area below the frost line where snakes could hibernate while providing them with exposed areas aboveground where they could bask in the sun.
"We created artificial den sites for several different species of snakes, but particularly this threatened one," said Blodgett. In addition to the Racer, the Eastern Milk, Garter and Dekay’s Brown snakes are found in the area, said Blodgett, and all of them are non-venomous.
A hole about 10 feet deep was dug and filled with materials left over from the renovation of the truck weigh station, which has been closed for a number of years. A grassy meadow was also seeded to create a habitat for animals the snakes consume, such as mice and frogs. Shredded bark and mulch was moved to specific areas to serve as an egg-laying substrate, said Blodgett.
"The Racer, which is a native snake, is very low in numbers. We’re not really quite sure what has diminished its population, but we thought that it might be due to habitat transitioning from fields and farms to forests. Part of the rationale of this project was to recreate those conditions."
Snakes have been killed crossing the highway, said Blodgett, and he hopes by creating the habitat on the east side of the road, snakes won’t be tempted to cross to find prey and nesting opportunities.
"They do travel quite a bit, but we are hoping to create a favorable habitat and they will be content to hang out there."
The Roaring Brook Wildlife Management Area encompasses about 1,000 acres.
Bob Audette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.