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Posted 7/12/2017

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By Steve Rochette
USACE Philadelphia District

WHITE HAVEN, PA – A group of graduate students from East Stroudsburg University partnered with the staff at the Francis E. Walter Dam in White Haven, PA as part of thesis work on rattlesnakes. The biological research involves measuring, tagging, determining the sex of the snakes and whether the females are gravid. Information gathered at dam will be used in a larger study that will help conservation efforts on the timber rattlesnake throughout the state of Pennsylvania.

The F.E. Walter Dam, constructed in 1961, has prevented more than $212 million in flood damages to the Lehigh River Valley. The property includes approximately 1800 acres, some of which is considered suitable habitat for rattlesnakes.

“There are denning locations all over the Pocono Plateau,” said Hydrologic Technician and acting Northern Area Manager Dave Williams. “At F.E. Walter, the draw is open cliff faces and fractured rock within the southerly facing tree line area, which make prime denning habitat for rattlesnakes.”

The partnership developed in the fall of 2016 when Tom LaDuke, an Associate Professor of Biology at East Stroudsburg University, approached the staff at the F.E. Walter Dam. LaDuke and his students were hoping to find rattlesnakes returning to denning areas for winter hibernation. 

Williams and the team at the Francis E. Walter Dam were familiar with the denning locations on the property so they escorted the students to the sites for observation. 

In April of 2017, the students returned to the denning locations when the snakes were emerging from hibernation. At that point, the students, who are trained in safe handling techniques, captured snakes and began data collection. Students measured the snakes, determined the sex (by counting the subcaudal scales), tagged the snakes and then released them in the same general area. Rattlesnakes typically return to the same denning location as their birth, so it’s important to release them nearby.

The student research involves various subjects, such as population size estimation, the effects of habitat change on population size and habitat preferences of gestating female timber rattlesnakes.  These studies are part of a larger study on population monitoring that is currently underway by LaDuke in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

“It’s been an interesting process to watch and the students have been appreciative of having the opportunity to access these locations for their research,” said Williams who added that he has a “healthy respect” for rattlesnakes.  

The partnership is one of several environmental stewardship initiatives taken on by the staff at the Francis E. Walter Dam.

One example includes a partnership with the American Chestnut Society to help restore the high-value native tree species on F.E. Walter Dam property.

Over the years, the F.E. Walter team has planted native warm-season grasses, removed invasive plant species when possible, and worked on forest management initiatives to allow the canopy to expand along with the understory to thrive and provide suitable habitat for wildlife. 

In 2017, more than 800 pounds of seed will be planted for habitat on USACE property at the Francis E. Walter Dam, Prompton Dam and Beltzville Dam.

“I feel this is all part of our job,” said Williams. “We’ve got 1800 acres to manage here and if you don’t try to manage it properly, then it’s not going to be viable as wildlife habitat and for the public to enjoy.”