By Pamela Johnson-Reporter-Herald Staff Writer- 01/01/2017
Loveland, CO, 1/1/17- A solar farm under construction in west Loveland has offered more than the promise of renewable energy. Researchers also got a glimpse of how snake populations are faring near human development.
"It's encouraging in trying to maintain biodiversity in an urban-suburban setting," said Stephen Mackassy, a professor at the University of Northern Colorado.
Mackassy and a team of student researchers spent many hours last spring and summer looking for snakes at the site near Mehaffey Park (west of Wilson Avenue between 29th and 22nd Streets) where the city of Loveland is building a solar farm.
Their purpose was threefold — they wanted to save the snakes from being killed and disrupted during construction, to study snake patterns and to assist the city with environmental regulations.
The students found 119 different snakes, mostly three species that are nonvenomous and harmless — bull snakes, milk snakes and racer snakes. With these, they captured them, tagged them with chips to follow their future movements, and then released them nearby but away from neighborhoods.
They couldn't take the snakes too far, less than a mile, from where they were found so they would be in their native terrain.
"We wanted to help them, get them away from where the construction was going on so they could survive the season," said Graham Dawson, one of four students who worked on the project.
The team also found three rattlesnakes, which they did not release back into the wild.
Instead, those snakes are now living, with many other reptiles, in Mackassy's laboratory area at the Greeley campus, where students and professors study snakes and uses for venom.
During their field research, the students were surprised at how curious people were about snakes and how supportive the public was of their efforts when they explained their purpose.
"That was a nice surprise," said Mackassy. "Snakes get a bad rap because some are venomous and can cause problems for us ... People are fearful of them.”
And Mackassy said he also was surprised at the number of snakes they found at the site because it is very near neighborhoods as well as the popular Mehaffey Park.
"We have a moderate diversity and abundance of these harmless and useful parts of the ecosystem in an area that's very close to human development," said Mackassy.
"I wasn't convinced at the start that we'd find as many or the total number of species ... They have a very important role in regulating populations of small mammals and that means rats and mice primarily.”
The city of Loveland contacted Mackassy to help with snakes at the construction site for more than one reason.
Officials wanted to make sure the snakes and workers were safe, that the snakes did not exit the site en masse to nearby neighborhoods and to comply with federal environmental standards, explained Tracy Turner-Naranjo, environmental compliance administrator for the city.
The solar farm is being built with money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a renewable energy source to replace a hydroelectric plant that was destroyed in the 2013 floods.
"There's a lot of snake activity there," said Turner-Naranjo. "That particular area is very nice habitat for snakes.”
So, the city staff decided to work with snake experts to balance environmental needs with safety of the workers, the neighborhood and the snakes. They created a snake training video for the contractors and employees on site to teach them of habitats, species and signs of snakes.
They also called in Mackassy and his students, who worked to relocate the snakes on city-owned property.
The project, Mackassy and Dawson said, allowed them to talk about how important snakes are to the ecosystem and to preventing rodent-borne diseases such as hantavirus and how to avoid conflict with snakes.
It also provided a baseline population for future study.
"That we're in an urban-suburban area and we still have reasonable diversity of these small animals is impressive and is a good indication that we can maintain this diversity along the Front Range if we consider some simple needs these animals have," said Mackassy.
"The whole project was designed to provide an inventory on what was there but also to develop best practices for the animals."