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Zoo to help grow snake population in Lake County
By Mick Zawislak | Daily Herald Staff

The Lake County Forest Preserve District has contracted with the Lincoln Park Zoo to develop a program to recover, breed and repopulate the smooth green snake.

 

Courtesy Lake County Forest Preserve District

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Published: 3/17/2010 4:56 PM

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The Lake County Forest Preserve District will be assisting another slithering critter this season.

Biologists will be counting smooth green snakes on forest preserve property, and hope to capture pregnant females, as part of a two-year program to boost their numbers in the wild.

"It's not quite on the threatened or endangered list but there is a definite decline," explained Gary Glowacki, a wildlife biologist with the forest preserve district.

Ranging from about 14 to 26 inches in length, the smooth green snake is the distinct bright green color of healthy grass and has a white belly tinged with yellow. Small populations have been found in a few scattered sites in grassland areas.

The forest preserve district has purchased and restored a significant amount of land with areas perfect for the snake, but the population won't be able to rebound without help.

To that end, the forest preserve board of commissioners on Tuesday approved a $49,500 contract with Lincoln Park Zoo for the development of a species recovery program to include captive breeding and a plan to supplement and/or reintroduce the snake into suitable areas.

The cost will be covered by a grant from a charitable organization that wishes to remain anonymous. The zoo will provide about $23,000 in in-kind services, such as computer modeling, captive breeding and other expertise.

The goal this year is to determine how many smooth green snakes can safely be removed from the wild for breeding or relocation.

Those found this year will be marked and released, although pregnant females will be collected and kept at the zoo, where they will have a better chance of survival. Any offspring will become the base for a new population to be placed in restored areas.

"We get more value out of the new animals than we would if they were left in the wild," said Joanne Earnhardt, director of the Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology at Lincoln Park Zoo.

The effort is the third in recent years for the forest preserve district involving snakes, which contribute to the ecological integrity and diversity of forest preserve land.

"We're kind of at the northern range of several snake species," Glowacki said. "As conditions change and things urbanize, we're kind of the front lines of species becoming more rare."

Last fall, Glowacki, who has an avowed interest in snakes, oversaw the construction of a new subterranean home (actually two pieces of concrete septic tank) for the western fox snake.

Its winter home had been cleared for a development and was replaced in an attempt to keep the colony from dwindling.

Glowacki also is a member of the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Recovery Team, which since 2006 has been searching in northeastern Illinois for the once-prevalent species that is now in danger of disappearing altogether.

That effort may be 15 or 20 years too late, says Glowacki, which is why action is needed now for species like the smooth green.

"It's much more effective to work on the conservation now. We have a window here to do some good," he said.