Jeff Parmelee
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Des Moines Register, Sunday, Sept. 2, 2003, Page 3B

Iowans work to keep

Man-made threats contribute to loss of timber snakes

By Juli Probasco-Sowers, Register staff writer

Winterset, IOWA -- Jeff Parmelee presses his fingers along the timber rattlesnake's underside.

"She hasn't given birth yet," he said as he turned over the 3 1/2-foot snake. He had gently plucked the snake with metal tongs from her coiled position beneath a clump of grass on a rocky outcrop in Madison County.

"Oh, isn't she just great?" he said.

Parmelee for three years has performed a task few might desire: tracking rattlesnakes in Madison County. He gains insight about the rattlesnakes' habitat movements and behavior — information he believes will aid their survival in Iowa.

State wildlife officials would like to protect and improve enough habitat to maintain the state's current timber rattlesnake populations. Parmelee believes Iowa's rattlesnake numbers have decreased by at least half, probably more since the number of Iowa settlers began to increase in the early to mid-1800s.

The reptiles once thrived here. Parmelee and others want to make sure they survive.

"Besides being native, rattlesnakes are an indicator of environmental health, and they do a service by eating rodents," said Doug Harr, diversity program coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Parmelee started the work in part because no long-term study had been done of the timber rattlesnakes in Iowa. He also uses the study to make the herpetology class he teaches at Simpson College in Indianola more interesting. State wildlife officials gave Parmelee a small grant, said Harr. In total, he has about $10,000 to work with.

Records show Iowa's timber rattlesnakes occur in 14 counties. Iowa has two other varieties of rattlesnake: the prairie rattlesnake along the border in western Iowa's Loess Hills, and the massasauga rattlesnake, which settles along portions of the Wapsipinicon, Lower Cedar and Nishnabotna rivers. Both are listed as endangered species in Iowa.

Bounty records show declining numbers, from 2,274 bounties paid in Madison County over 12 months in 1960 and 1961 to 667 the last year of the bounty, which ended in 1971 or 1972. Bounties on rattlesnakes no longer exist. There has been no effort to specifically estimate how many snakes are in Iowa.

Numbers declined significantly as the rattlers were killed by settlers and, later, farmers. Agricultural practices, particularly mowing, also contributed to the decline said Harr. Continuing man-made threats include housing developments encroaching on habitat, as well as increased traffic on roads the snakes cross.

While doing historical research on the snakes in Madison County, Parmelee uncovered information about an 1848 countywide rattlesnake hunt, in which as many as 4,000 snakes were killed.

Retired Winterset-area farmer, Don Bryant, 73, remembers when a $1 bounty was paid for rattlesnakes in the 1950s. "I probably took in 10 rattles during that time" he said. Now, he would hate to see them disappear.

"They never caused a problem for us or livestock we used to have," Bryant said. The last time he saw a rattlesnake was a few years ago in a timbered area of his property. "We saw a big rattlesnake coiled up and rattling. He never did anything, so we just left him alone."

Harr said work to improve habitat on private property in Allamakee County includes removal of cedar trees from a rocky area where the snakes den and sun themselves. Rattlesnakes don't use areas that become too shaded.

Research conducted by Parmelee and Paul Frese, a biologist from Missouri and a former Adair County resident, also might help. The study gleans information through surgically implanted radio transmitters, which allow the biologists to track the creatures.

"In three years of this study, Paul and I have only seen 200 snakes," Parmelee said. The radio transmitters have been implanted in 24 of them.]

The biologists also put identification tags into all the snakes they catch. After the batteries die in the radio transmitters, the biologists will be able to get digital readings from the identification tags for a long time, allowing them to gain information about the snake's growth and health upon recapture.

That's what Parmelee was doing when he examined the snake in Madison County. He kept one hand around the end of a clear plastic tube covering the top one-third of the snake's body and extending past the head. The snake rattled its tail once as Parmelee handled it.

The study will help biologists understand how much of an area is needed to protect individual colonies, Parmelee said.

Iowa's rattlesnakes occur in isolated pockets or islands of habitat, said Frese. "Good habitat for timber rattlesnakes would be open woodland, savanna, and diverse grassland in a mosaic," said Frese. "Rocky outcrops are essential for den sites."

Today, there could be as many as 12 to 100 snakes in one colony using communal dens. The Madison County area near Winterset that Parmelee has been studying has an estimated 50 to 60 of the snakes.

Iowa's timber rattlesnakes have been legislatively protected since 2001. The snakes can be destroyed only if they are within 50 feet of an occupied house, said Harr.

Dennis Nelson, state conservation officer for Madison and Dallas counties, gets few rattlesnake complaints. In 40 years, Neslon has heard of about five bites.

As Parmelee continued to examine the snake, he felt further down the long body until he found the transmitter low on the tall, toward the animal's underside.

Snakes are taken to a lab at Simpson College to get the devices surgically implanted. Three years' worth of information from the snake tracking will be compiled over the winter.

As Parmelee looked over the snake he held, he could feel eggs inside. She won't lay the eggs: She will give birth to live rattlesnakes.

He released the rattler, allowing it to slither away.

"Isn't she beautiful?" Parmelee asked, watching the reptile disappear along the limestone.

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Update: Jeff has been nominated for the school's Distinguished Faculty Award. ... In 2010, he resigned from his teaching post. ... In 2011 he became an instructor at Missouri State University in Springfield.

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