Home & Garden Columns

Wild Neighbors:

By Joe Eaton
Tuesday April 22, 2008
An Alameda whipsnake, looking alert.
Center for Biological Diversity
An Alameda whipsnake, looking alert.

Last week’s column gave an overview of expansion plans by the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, including two huge new buildings in Strawberry Canyon: the Computation Research and Theoretical Facility (CRT) and the Helios Facility. A group called Save Strawberry Canyon is fighting the expansion for a whole litany of reasons: earthquake and fire risks; impacts on air and water quality and greenhouse gas emissions; damage to a significant cultural landscape; procedural flaws in the lab’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP); and, not least, endangered species issues. 

These folks could really use a web designer. If you’re interested, email Phila Rogers (philajane6@yahoo.com). 

UC concedes that the development sites are known or potential habitat for several protected or sensitive animals and plants. Some of these species get only a cursory mention in the LRDP, CRT and Helios EIRs. But UC has developed plans for dealing with the federally threatened Alameda whipsnake (Masticophis lateralis euryxanthus), the bane of East Bay developers. Whether those plans are anywhere near adequate is another question. 

My only encounter with a whipsnake took place in Briones Regional Park a few years ago. A ripple in the grass resolved from a black-and-yellow blur into a four-foot-long snake. It stopped and looked back at me, head raised like a cobra’s, neck weaving back and forth. It had large eyes for a snake, and a jet-black tongue that flickered in and out. Then it turned, and in an instant was gone in the nearby brush before I even thought to reach for my camera. 

Whipsnakes are active by day, waiting out the night in rodent burrows. When the morning sun has raised its body temperature to the optimum level, a whipsnake goes on the prowl, hunting by sight, not smell or thermal cues like many other snakes. Its primary quarry is the western fence lizard. If you’ve ever tried to catch a fence lizard, you can appreciate what the snake is up against; they’re fast and skilled in evasive maneuvers. But the whipsnake chases them down, pinning them and swallowing them alive and thrashing. It wastes no time on constriction. 

For a whipsnake, prime real estate has tall enough grass to conceal it from its own predators, patchy shrub cover to let the sun in, and rock outcroppings where lizards bask. Females also require grassland for egg-laying. This mosaic of microhabitats has become increasingly rare. Freeways and housing developments have fragmented the snake’s range, isolating remnant populations and obstructing gene flow among them. 

The Alameda whipsnake, found only in Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Joaquin Counties, was state-listed in 1971 and federally listed in 1997. A suit by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Christians Caring for Creation forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FSW) to identify 400,000 acres as critical habitat. That was set aside after litigation by the Home Builder’s Association of Northern California, claiming the habitat criteria were too broad.  

FWS’s second critical habitat designation in 2005, under the aegis of Interior Department hatchetwoman Julie MacDonald, cut the protected area by over 62 percent. Last November CBD declared its intent to go back to court on this and other endangered-species determinations. See their website for details: www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/reptiles/Alameda_whipsnake. For now, critical habitat officially includes the eastern portion of the Lawrence Lab’s territory, although not the CRT or Helios sites.  

Surveys by contract biologist Karen Swaim have not detected Alameda whipsnakes in the portion of Strawberry Canyon targeted for the next round of development. However, both the CRT and Helios project sites were designated as “highly suitable potential habitat” for the snake. In the case of a creature that hibernates for a good part of the year and is very good at not being seen, the old adage “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” would seem to apply. 

According to the UC EIRs, any whipsnakes encountered during pre-construction site surveys would be dealt with in accordance with the Alameda Whipsnake Relocation Plan. Although this phrase has a reassuring solidity, there does not appear to be an actual plan, at least not in writing. 

UC also goes into detail about efforts to minimize incidental take (a semantic cousin of “collateral damage”) of the whipsnake, which would include hiring a Whipsnake Monitor for the construction sites, whipsnake awareness training for the crews, and building snakeproof fences once a site has been cleared.  

But the fate of individual snakes isn’t really the issue here. It’s how the CRT and Helios projects, and whatever follows them—the buildings, the parking lots, the roads, the vegetation management—would fragment existing habitat. Without connectivity between suitable patches, any Strawberry Canyon whipsnake population would be doomed to extirpation. 

Rumors that UC has retained Samuel L. Jackson as a consultant could not be confirmed. 

Next week: the harvestman paradox.