Endangered rattlesnake in Wheeling bike path's way

Tucked near Dundee Road are hibernating eastern massasauga rattlesnakes waiting for spring.

Don't tell them about the bike path coming next year.

Wheeling is planning to build a paved bike and pedestrian path along Dundee Road, from the Des Plaines River east to the I-294 overpass, that will connect with other bicycle paths in the area. Construction will start in spring 2012 and wrap up that fall.

Until then, a whole bunch of state agencies are deciding what to do about the snakes. The Wheeling Village Board recently hired an environmental consultant for about $25,000 to study the area.

While the snakes aren't the main object of the study, they are certainly a part of it, said Steven Rauch, an environmental services manager for Hey and Associates Inc. in Volo., who is in charge of study and said it will look at wetlands in the area.

The poisonous eastern massasauga rattlesnake is a recurring theme for projects near the Des Plaines River and forest preserves in Wheeling. However, because the snake is endangered in Illinois, Wheeling will need a special permit to construct the path.

“It's assumed the project will have an adverse effect on the snake's habitat,” Rauch said. “What we'll have to do is minimize the impact.”

That's easy to do during the construction portion. Workers can set up special breathable fences that allow water to pass, but would stop snakes from getting into a construction site.

What to do when the path opens to bicyclers and walkers is more complicated.

“You don't really want snakes going back and forth over a bike trail,” Rauch said. “You don't want people stepping on them, but there is a high likelihood of human-to-snake contact.”

The eastern massasauga rattlesnakes are up to 100 centimeters long and feed on small rodents. They are active April through October, and often sun themselves on clumps of grass and in branches of small shrubs, according to the Illinois Natural History Survey.

Their main predators are hawks, predatory mammals and other snakes.

Rauch said he's not sure how many snakes are now in the forest preserve areas north and south of Dundee Road, but he's sure they're there.

“We have records they are in the vicinity,” he said. “We don't often come across them in projects.”

The bike path project will cost about $1.2 million, said Tim Merrihew, Wheeling's capital projects and design manager. About 80 percent of the project will be paid for with a grant from the Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program, he said.

FILE — An eastern massasauga rattlesnake is seen in its exhibit at the Philadelphia Zoo in this Sept. 5, 2003, File Photo.
An eastern massasauga rattlesnake