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Biologist wants rattlesnakes protected during project

Workers building 30 wind turbines, access roads and transmission lines on Buck Mountain should protect timber rattlesnakes by doing earthwork between November and the end of March when the snakes hibernate, a state biologist wrote to a developer.

Christopher Urban of the Fish and Boat Commission also suggested other ways to protect rattlesnakes and workers in a letter on Dec. 7, 2009 after visiting the wind farm proposed for Schuylkill, Luzerne and Columbia counties the previous month.

“The site is indeed occupied by timber rattlesnakes, as the landowner himself informed us that he has encountered rattlesnakes on the property,” Urban wrote.

His letter followed a report that Richard Pais, a certified wildlife biologist of Wilkes-Barre, prepared for the developer. Pais said proposed wind turbine sites were unsuited for birthing and raising snakes, but marginal places for the snakes to feed and den.

In recent decades, land development and indiscriminate killing caused a major decline in the rattlesnake population so the state has restricted capture of the snakes and prohibited damage to their habitat, according to a brochure by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Rattlesnakes prefer to hibernate in rocky slopes that face south or southeast on the edge of forests. They will sleep in the same den winter after winter. In summer, they bask in sun, hunt and give birth.

During several visits to Buck Mountain in the summer of 2009, Pais and his co-workers saw no rattlesnakes.

They found chipmunks that snakes might eat but said tree and brush cover blocked out most of the sun so the shade made sites of talus or loose rocks unsuitable for giving birth and raising snakes. The talus slopes generally were far from water, and rock cavities didn’t go below the frost line so snakes wouldn’t hibernate in them, Pais said.

Clearing trees during construction and seeding plants that support small mammals might improve living conditions for rattlesnakes, Pais said.

The Fish and Boat Commission, however, pointed out sensitive areas that could support rattlesnakes and recommended the developers avoid those areas. In addition, Urban wrote that the developer should stack large rocks on the perimeter of land cleared for turbines where rattlesnakes could catch sun. And he said a biologist should join the work crews to safely capture and release any snakes observed during construction.

Urban sent his letter to Rob Irwin of Penn Wind in Sunbury, Northumberland County.

Since then, Penn Wind dropped out. The new developer, Buck Mountain Wind Energy, an affiliate of Pattern Energy Group, wants to start construction in 2016.

The plan calls for installing 30 turbines that will generate enough power to supply about 25,000 homes.

Pattern Energy hired Shoener Environmental of Dickson City to update the rattlesnake study.

“The project configuration has been updated to avoid the sensitive areas,” a letter from Shoener Environmental to Urban said on Jan. 21, 2013.

The Fish and Boat Commission provided the letters and the report by Pais after the Standard-Speaker requested them through the state’s right-to-know law.

In addition to rattlesnakes and chipmunks, biologists studying Buck Mountain have found a black snake, deer, wild turkeys, opossum, turkey vultures and raccoons.

They also netted one small-footed bat, which is threatened and protected in Pennsylvania.