Editor’s note: Last month, the Department of Natural Resources reported 60 endangered and 60 threatened species in Michigan. This week, in honor of Earth Day, we will share the stories of some of these animals and the work being done to help save them.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A national conservation group is working to protect a Midwestern snake that is facing extinction.

In 2022, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for its 2017 decision to deny the Kirtland’s snake protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The Kirtland’s snake once populated wetlands all across the Midwest but habitat loss has put its future in jeopardy. It has disappeared completely from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and now is found in only a select few places in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee.

According to the Michigan State University Extension, the snakes have only been observed a handful of times across 12 counties in the state. They have been observed in the western lakeshore counties from Oceana County south through Berrien County, along with Kalamazoo, Cass, Eaton, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Wayne counties. However, some of those observations haven’t happened in years. Three snakes were last spotted in Muskegon County in 1996. Allegan County hasn’t had a confirmed sighting since 1985. Only Kalamazoo County had confirmed sightings last year.

Tierra Curry, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, says the Kirtland’s snake is unique. Unlike most snakes, Kirtland’s snakes rarely bask in the sun and usually stay hidden in leaf litter or other cover.

Curry says it is a creature that is definitely more afraid of you than you should be of it.

“I know not everybody thinks snakes are cute, but as far as snakes go, it’s really cute,” Curry told News 8. “It has a pink belly with black spots on it. It’s a small snake, and when it gets scared, it flattens itself like a ribbon. … It’s not venomous. It’s not poisonous to humans. They eat slugs and earthworms and then are eaten by other things that hang around wetlands.”

A photo of a Kirtland’s snake which shows off its pink belly. (Courtesy Ohio Partners in Amphibian & Reptile Conservation)

The loss of wetlands and swamps have pinned the snakes down into an ever-shrinking habitat.

“They like wet meadows and lakeshores. That’s also where a lot of development has happened,” Curry said. “We have lost like 85% to 90% of our wetlands, so it has become small, isolated populations. The best estimate is they have lost about half of their range and about 60% of their population.”

The more distance between populations, the more stress is placed on those snakes.

“These snakes are small and they don’t travel very far,” she explained. “When the populations become isolated, if one blinks out because of a hot, dry summer or a new subdivision, then it can’t get rescued by a nearby population.”

According to Curry, the snakes are found in fewer than an estimated 200 wetlands across the state. The Kirtland’s snake is considered endangered by the state of Michigan but was rejected for protection status in 2017.

A statement from the Center for Biological Diversity says the Kirtland’s snake was one of many species that it believes were wrongfully denied protection during former President Donald Trump’s tenure.

“The Trump administration only listed 25 species in four years — the fewest of any administration since the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973,” the organization stated.

President George W. Bush averaged seven new species per year during his tenure. During his two terms, former President Barack Obama averaged 42 new species per year.

The CBD said the lawsuit was necessary to send a message to President Joe Biden and his administration who organizers claim have been “slow to reconsider denial of protection for species.”

While Curry and the CBD wait for a judge to decide whether the snake should get a new review, she encourages environmental supporters to help out in two ways. The first is to stay tuned in to local real estate development.

“One is to get involved in local land-use battles,” she said. “All of that zoning that goes through the county for new subdivisions, new shopping malls, new whatever. People can weigh in and say, ‘Hey, we need to leave some natural habitat.’”

The other is to show support for a piece of bipartisan legislation called the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act.

“It would provide a billion dollars in funding to states and tribes to protect these little animals (like the Kirtland’s snake) that are so important, but aren’t popular and don’t get funding,” Curry said. “It almost passed in the last Congress. I’m really hopeful that once it is reintroduced, it could pass in this Congress.”

This story is the fourth part of a five-part series. See the full series here.