DNR compromises to protect garter snake, development

New policy eases costs, hassles for builders

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

It took 12 snakes and almost five years for Bill Carity to turn raw land into a subdivision.

The Butler’s garter snake, a protected species in Wisconsin, was discovered on his property in Menomonee Falls in 1999, and afterward, he struggled to satisfy the competing demands of the Department of Natural Resources and getting his project off the ground.

“The Butler’s took me completely by surprise,” said Carity, of Carity Land Corp. of Brookfield. “For a long time, it was a painful process.”

Reacting to gripes from numerous developers that a slender reptile was stalling their projects, Wisconsin officials have implemented a new policy to save the controversial Butler’s garter snake.

The DNR aims to protect the snake while trying to accommodate developers, whose construction sites occasionally serve as homes for this relative of the common garter snake.

The changes mean less protection for the snake in some parts of southeastern Wisconsin. But more significantly, the new policy is an example of the DNR and the Doyle administration trying to balance environmental protection and economic development.

In the case of the Butler’s, builders were complaining that the snake was an economic impediment, and there were moves afoot in the Legislature to remove restrictions on the snake. That prompted DNR to find a compromise.

The Butler’s garter snake is one of five garter snakes known to inhabit Wisconsin.

At 17 to 22 inches long, it’s known to congregate in massive numbers in places it likes. A survey of three islands on Lincoln Creek in the late 1990s in the city of Milwaukee found more than 1,200 Butler’s garter snakes, according to the DNR.

But its habitat is shrinking, and the population is declining and growing more fragmented.

Thus, the DNR declared the snake a threatened species in 1997. The designation has meant snakes in most cases can’t be killed. One challenge in protecting the snake is that it is the spitting image of the Eastern Plains garter snake. The two snakes are known to interbreed, producing a hybrid that is not protected.

Compounding the problem is the uniqueness of the Butler’s in Wisconsin. Genetic testing is under way at the University of Tennessee to determine whether Wisconsin’s Butler’s garter snake is distinct from the Butler’s in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Ontario – its only other range. If tests prove the local Butler’s is genetically different, new restrictions might come back.

While the common garter snake can be found across the state, the Butler’s garter snake is confined to parts of Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties.

“In Wisconsin, that happens to be the worst place to be,” said Bob Hay, a DNR herpetologist, because intensive development threatens the snake.

When it first became protected, the Butler’s was found in Kenosha and Racine counties, too. But development wiped out the snake there, Hay said.

Hay acknowledged that it’s sometimes difficult to find devotees of snakes.

“But from a biological perspective, we don’t believe that any of these species are here by accident,” he said. “They all play a role, even though we may not understand it, in the food chain.”

Old policy protected any site
Wisconsin’s old policy called for protecting any site where a Butler’s garter snake is located, but there were exceptions: After a 30-day public notice, the DNR since 1997 has allowed 32 instances where snakes were allowed to be killed.

The old way hobbled projects in New Berlin, South Milwaukee, Port Washington and Menomonee Falls as developers were forced to slow their work to comply with laws protecting endangered and threatened species.

Developers had to pay for studies to learn whether Butler’s garter snakes lived there. If the snakes were found, developers had to take protective measures such as adding snake-proof fences and adding buffer strips of land to give the snakes more room.

Some projects were delayed a year or more, said J. Scott Mathie, director of government affairs at the Metropolitan Builders Association of Greater Milwaukee.

“There were major hits to economic development,” Mathie said.

In Menomonee Falls, Carity’s Ravenswood subdivision, near W. Silver Spring Drive and Pilgrim Road, stood undeveloped until he was able to start selling lots last fall.

Twelve Butler’s garter snakes were discovered in 1999. Carity had to find one of only a handful of local herpetologists who could identify the snake. He spent an additional $25,000 in engineering and planning expenses. In the end, he idled about 6 acres of the 34-acre parcel for Butler’s habitat.

“If land values would not have appreciated as much as they have in the last four years, I would have been hurt financially,” Carity said.

Environmental triage
The DNR has collaborated with developers and environmentalists and settled on a form of environmental triage, where biologists will decide where the best habitat is located. And the DNR says it will try to evaluate a site in seven to 10 days.

The Butler’s habitat also is now being divided into three tiers, with only the third tier requiring developers to protect the snakes by changing construction plans, building buffers and erecting fences.

As companies apply for construction permits, endangered resource specialists will judge applications – perhaps visit a site – and determine whether the Butler’s garter snakes would thrive there.

The Ravenswood subdivision in Menomonee Falls would have been deemed marginal snake habitat, and Carity would not have been forced to jump through so many hoops.

“I think the tiered system will help,” Carity said. “I think that the DNR has gone out of its way to try to help developers in the process.”

As for the DNR, “we realized that some sites were more important than others,” said Andrew P. Galvin of the DNR’s Bureau of Endangered Resources. “We were getting involved and spending a lot of time on places that didn’t really have that much effect on the snakes.”

One site that is likely to be third-tier Butler’s habitat is in a northwest suburb of Milwaukee, where a developer is in the early stages of the permitting process for a commercial building. The Madison office of JJR, a landscape architecture, engineering and design company headquartered in Ann Arbor, Mich., is working on permits for the building.

Mark Bergum, a civil engineer with JJR, said the best road design could fragment snake habitat. He said his firm is working with regulators to find a happy medium.

“I’m optimistic right now,” he said. “I think that we can work though these issues and improve the habitat for the snakes while improving access to the property.”

Mathie said his builders group backs the DNR plan for now. But even with the changes, Mathie has heard from one builder who still won’t be able to develop a parcel.

The DNR believes the snake can be saved if 65 sites with significant habitat can be found in southeastern Wisconsin; about 35 sites have been found.

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