Building paves over snake habitat

Auburn University shattered an unusual ecological system when it gave land for a new medical college, leaving only “fragments,” according to John Kush, research fellow in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.

The Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine building, which began construction in February 2013, sits atop 15 of 21 acres in a plot of land which Kush said was managed by the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences since the 1950s.

“Most people didn’t realize (the site) had a remarkable amount of what an ecologist might call residual biodiversity,” said Sharon Hermann, assistant professor of biological sciences. “The natural native ecosystem was not really intact, but there were a surprising number of individuals scattered around, of both plants and animals, that were once there 200-300 years ago.”

Hermann said the VCOM site was useful because it showed the Southeast as it existed in the past. The site held animals and plants such as trillium, mayapple and the cardinal flower.

Hermann said she and her students also found eastern kingsnakes on the property. According to her field notes, her undergraduate students spotted the snakes four times between Oct. 28, 2012, and June 30, 2013. The eastern kingsnake is a protected species in the state of Alabama, according to Craig Guyer, professor of biological sciences and the herpetologist who positively identified the snakes found by the students. Guyer said the black-and-white-banded serpents have been hard to find in the Southeastern United States since the early 1980s, though they are not federally protected.

Kingsnakes are considered useful, Guyer said, because they generally leave people alone, are not venomous and eat other venomous snakes.

“there’s a lot of money involved.”

The University announced in October 2013 its plan to give the land to VCOM for development.

Becky Barlow, professor of biological sciences, and Kush said despite a letter-writing campaign from themselves and students who had used the area for research projects, the University still used the land.

“The site had tremendous potential,” Hermann said. “It was hard to lose that site, even though I understand the University needed someplace to put that building and that there’s a lot of money involved.”

Auburn University architect Jim Carroll said the Office of Facilities Management recommended the site because of its advantageous location.

“Long term, we are master-planning that for the health sciences sector,” Carroll said.

Carroll said his office selected the site because its proximity to campus and the research park could encourage collaborative research between the College of Osteopathic Medicine and the planned nursing school.

“It’s our job to evaluate the highest and best use of every piece of property the University owns,” Carroll said. “You could argue that we could have had that on Wire Road, or it could have been down by the veterinary school, but that did not have the strength of having it adjacent to the health science sector.”

Mike Kensler, director of the Office of Sustainability, said the University has been working with VCOM and contractor Brasfield and Gorrie to develop the building in an environmentally friendly manner.

Kensler said if done properly, developing campus land did not have to affect the stormwater runoff and remaining habitat.

“What they left were little fragments.”

Kush, who worked on the VCOM land for 12 years, said he doubted the contractors could handle the flooding. Kush also said the building would inevitably impact the environment.

“You’re taking something that was 21 acres and paving over most of it,” Kush said. “What they left were little fragments that couldn’t support the whole variety [of species].”

Kush said the exact spot where Hermann found the rare kingsnakes is now a parking lot.

No one who spoke to The Plainsman said they knew what happened to the eastern kingsnakes found on the VCOM site.

Guyer said it is “virtually certain” the snakes stayed on the site through construction in spring 2014 because they had begun reproducing.

Carroll said the Office of Facilities Management commissioned a study by BioResources, LLC., an outside contractor, to check the site for federally listed plant and animal species.

Carroll said though he knew kingsnakes were on the property, he did not know if they lived on the 15 acres occupied by the VCOM building.

Roger Clay, marine biologist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said his department would need proof of the kingsnakes being killed during construction to pursue action against Auburn University.

He called chances of any legal consequences “slim to none.” With the VCOM building almost complete, Guyer said it’s too late to save rare species such as the eastern kingsnake on that particular site.

The best plan for the future, according to Guyer, is to map every plant and animal species on campus.

“I’d love to see it,” Guyer said. “We’d like to provide that so that the campus will be armed with that when they think about developing in the future.”

Why it’s a highlight:

I spent several months investigating, reporting and re-reporting this story. The final product you see here is an abridged version of the original 1,500 word version.

The story sparked a decent bit of controversy within Auburn when it was published. Guyer told me later that an anonymous donor read the story and wanted to give the School of Forestry money to investigate what happened to the kingsnakes.


Original Story

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