Snakes in paradise. I doubt that reptiles have a conscious mind that defines paradise, but a study has
shown that they like wetland prairie, worms as food, places in the sun, and a drier upland area to
while away the winter in a communal ball.
But they have proven to be opportunists. When the North Avenue dam was opened in 1995 and eventually removed,
the mud flats filled in with non-woody plants and the Butler’s moved in.
This species is a distinct Midwestern species and has lost much of its habitat to development. The colonies
in southeastern Wisconsin are not connected to populations in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Ontario. Since
the open land along the Milwaukee River includes over 30 acres of habitat for the Butler, it is considered a
prime habitat, and the snake and its habitat are protected by state law. The State of Wisconsin has listed this
species as threatened and the Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) Bureau of Endangered Resources
is in charge of interpreting and enforcing rules to protect them.
To do that means coming in contact and often in conflict with development and developers. Two years ago
UWM’s Riverview Hall was built on an upland grassy are near North Avenue and the river. The developer
agreed to create an upland area of land equal to the land taken for the dorm for the snakes. This was required
by WDNR and included in the complicated negotiations that resulted in the project going forward. Now.
two years later, this is being done on Milwaukee County park land at the base of the slope approximately
east of Wright Street in Rivewest. This site was chosen because of its location relative to the snakes’ summer
habitat. This area was recommended by Gary Casper, a reptile specialist hired by the WDNR to study the
habitat. This is County land and the Milwaukee County Parks staff agreed to the choice.
One of the main goals in natural habitat restoration activities in the Milwaukee River valley is to increase
biodiversity. To increase biodiversity, not just for Butler garter snakes and other reptiles, but for birds,
amphibians and mammals, you need diverse habitat. Habitat includes many variables but certainly includes
a variety of plant life which is the base of the food chain for all living things.
Savannah, where the forest meets the meadow, is what is being created in this area. It now looks barren but
hopefully soon native understory and prairie species will thrive. The area was rife with invasive non- natives
including garlic mustard and Japanese knot weed and the adjacent slopes had colonies of invasive woody
Buckthorn. Past use left remnants of a more active recreational use for this area as there were beds of garden
day lillies. It will be different than what it was, but diversity may be our survival as well as the snakes.
Enjoy the sun. The Butler’s garter snakes will.