Jeff LeClere, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, holds a plains hognose snake on the Chippewa Prairie.
APPLETON — Finding a plains hognose snake amidst the knee-high foliage of the Chippewa Prairie in western Minnesota is a lot like buying a winning lottery ticket.
It takes some luck, unless you have the advantage that Jeff LeClere has in his search. He now has seven plains hognose snakes that carry surgically implanted transmitters.
He roams this 2,000 acre, native prairie along Lac qui Parle Lake with an antenna that can pick up the telltale beep-beep-beep of the transmitters anytime he comes within 400-feet of one. “You can step on top of it and not know it’s there,’’ said LeClere of how well the hognose snakes can hide.
LeClere is a herpetologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
He’s also lucky. He and his colleagues knew hognose snakes existed on this prairie when they began their search a few years ago, yet also understood how difficult it was going to be to find one. They put up sheets of wood and corrugated metal to provide the kind of cover garter and other snakes are attracted to, but without success.
And then one day they stumbled upon a hognose snake, caught her and implanted the transmitter. “She led us right to where all of the other snakes were,’’ said LeClere.
Now he and other colleagues come every other day to track their subjects like FBI agents shadowing suspects. Along with the seven with implanted transmitters, they have injected tiny, glass enclosed pit tags in over 100 other hognose snakes. They can scan any of these snakes when they come upon them and know their identity, and hence keep track of their development and movements.
More than snakes are at stake in this research. The Chippewa Prairie is the focus of a long-term study to determine whether we can manage and preserve our remaining, natural prairie lands through a process known as “patch burn grazing.’’
Each year a portion of the prairie is burned, and a small herd of cows is allowed to graze. It mimics how the prairies evolved, only the herds that once grazed this land were those of bison.
The plains hognose snake is very much a creature of the prairie, specially adapted to this environment, said LeClere. If the patch burn grazing regime compromises this natural environment, the hognose snakes will serve as the canary in the coal mine to tell us.
The snakes are but one part of the mosaic that makes up this landscape. Other researchers are paying similar, close attention to the various prairie flora and grasses to see how this will work.
LeClere’s a natural for this work: When he was a young boy in Iowa he became fascinated by dinosaurs. “Lots of kids grow out of it. I never did,’’ said LeClere.
His interest turned to amphibians and reptiles when he was taught that they were the closest living relatives to dinosaurs. They were something he could touch, catch and keep in the backyard, unlike a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
As an herpetologist, he travels much of the state with the Minnesota Biological Survey program to assess the populations of reptiles and amphibians.
Jeff LeClere holds the antenna that picks up the telltale beep-beep-beep from the radio transmitter implanted in the hognose snake.
He’s part of a team studying several different species of snakes in the Weaver sandhill dunes in southeastern Minnesota. And, he’s part of a group looking at the skink populations in Scientific and Natural Areas in this region.
The hognose snake research on the Chippewa Prairie has been his to coordinate for over two years. Funds allowed him or others to track the snakes every day during the past two summers, weekends included.
One of their first findings was a shock. During the first summer, female snakes with transmitters made their way into a large cattail marsh, a large backwater of the Minnesota River. They spent the entire summer in its moist and apparently cooler confines.
“It really blew us away,’’ said LeClere. The conventional wisdom held that hognose snakes would never stray from the upland prairie with which they are so closely associated.
They spent some time in the marsh last summer as well, but not nearly so much. It taught the researchers that caring for the prairie by itself was not enough. Caring for the entire landscape is important.
They’ve also learned where the snakes like to hibernate, lay their eggs, and where many of the individuals prefer to hunt their favorite foods. They prey on frogs, toads, lizards, small rodents, and the eggs of turtles, ground nesting birds and even their small fledglings.
The snakes’ ability to avoid detection is their best defense, and they need it. LeClere said it is surprising how many scars are carried by the adults, which usually grow to about 2 ½ feet in length. Raccoons, weasels, raptors, coyotes and foxes are their main enemies.
The other “predator” is people who capture hognose snakes for the pet trade. Fortunately, many captive-bred hognose snakes exist and that has helped reduce the pressure on wild populations, he said.
So far, the research on the Chippewa Prairie has not shown the grazing cattle to be a threat to the hognose snake. One early captured snake was a victim. It was accidentally trampled by cattle when it took the wrong escape route. The pit tags have also revealed that some snakes fall victim to the prescribed burning of the prairie.
LeClere cautions that due to the limited number of snakes that are transmitter equipped, it’s impossible to answer the larger, research questions that interest many.
Yet he points out that there are enough of the transmitter-equipped snakes to provide the needed answers to the program focused questions, such as the habitat needs and the effects of disturbances here.
Every time he or others track down the beep-beep-beep to an individual snake, they GPS the spot and record the type of habitat within one meter of it.
They’ve also been collecting tissue samples to provide an inventory of the population’s genetics.
Funds for this research come mainly from the nongame fund and the Minnesota Biological Survey. LeClere said he hopes funding can allow it to continue for years, as the patch-burn grazing study itself is intended to be long-term.
In the meantime, he feels like a lottery winner every day that he is on the prairie, doing what he enjoys. “This is definitely what I was meant to do,’’ said the herpetologist. “I feel like this is my place.’’
This is the third year of tracking plains hognose snakes on the Chippewa Prairie.