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A Slithering Success Story
by Kristin Stanford, Ph.D.
Photo Credit: Kristin Stanford
The beautiful island region in Lake Erie's Western Basin is known for its shipwrecks, recreation, and natural beauty. The area is also nationally recognized for birding and walleye fishing. And now, watersnakes.
But the once robust population of watersnakes of Lake Erie was almost lost. The Lake Erie watersnake (Nerodia sipedon insularum), a medium-sized, non-venomous snake, is a historic resident of the region. It is found nowhere else in the world. The snake was once so abundant that, from the beginning of European exploration, the region was described as Les isles aux serpents, or the Islands of Serpents.
Unfortunately for the Lake Erie snake, beginning in the late 1800s, the island region was settled and both shoreline and inland habitats were drastically cleared for farming and quarry operations. Not only would habitat loss severely affect the snakes but settlers set out to rid the islands of snakes. Several early accounts describe the purposeful demise of the once prevalent animals.
Over time these cumulative impacts caused a dramatic decline in the snake population. Enough so that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) listed the snake as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1999, and soon after, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources recognized it as an endangered species in the state. The three primary threats to the snake's survival were its low population size, extensive habitat destruction, and human persecution. Identifying these threats was just the first step in slowing the rate of decline and stabilizing the species.
Photo Credit: Tyler Lawson
Soon after in the summer of 2000, a multi-year study was started by long-time Lake Erie watersnake researcher Dr. Richard King to uncover some of the unknowns about the snake's biology—locating hibernation areas, determining the size of its home ranges, and its foraging preferences.
To assess the snake's population size, an annual census was established. The goal of the census was simple—determine the population size that would allow the snake to persist. Each year, surveyors waded through water and braved snake bites to capture and tag as many snakes as possible. That was the easy part. The more tedious work was determining the number of Lake Erie watersnakes on the islands.
"Our mark-recapture process involves taking several measures on each animal, scoring them for sex and color pattern, and inserting a PIT tag, or small microchip, under the skin if they don't have one already," explaines King. "Using the ratio of the number of marked and unmarked animals, we generate estimates of adult Lake Erie watersnake population size, population growth rate and survivorship for the islands."
Partnerships were also essential to protecting habitat for the snake. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources' (ODNR) Lake Erie Watersnake Habitat Management Plan fulfilled nearly all of the requirements to protect snake habitat. Unfortunately, even with over 200 acres (81 hectares) of state property cited for protection, they were still short on South Bass Island.
The Lake Erie Islands Chapter of the Black Swamp Conservancy (LEI-BSC), the local land trust organization, initiated a voluntary conservation easement program for the Lake Erie Islands to bring additional shoreline acreage to the list of protected Lake Erie watersnake habitat.
The capstone of Lake Erie watersnake habitat conservation came in 2008, however, when the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, the LEI-BSC, and the Put-in-Bay Township Park District partnered with ODNR to obtain a 9-acre (4-ha) property on the tip of South Bass Island. With a generous donation from the late Rose Scheeff, and funding from multiple partners, the group was able to secure a $1.8 million Habitat Conservation Plan Land Acquisition Grant from the Service, to ensure the property would be protected and managed for the snake in perpetuity.
"This was such a great achievement for all islanders and the snakes," says Lisa Brohl, LEI-BSC chair.
The greatest challenge to the snake's recovery was reducing human persecution—the most significant factor contributing to the species' decline. Addressing intentional mortality, which typically results from most peoples fear and dislike of these animals, required the use of a multitude of strategies.
Photo Credit: Tyler Lawson
In 2003, with support from the Service, Northern Illinois University, Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory, and the Ohio Division of Wildlife, a public outreach program was put in place. Over the next several years, the number and types of outreach strategies expanded to include large show and tell events, several major newspaper articles, radio interviews, a dedicated website, and even television. In August of 2006, Mike Rowe and Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs" came to the Lake Erie islands to showcase the work of the snake conservationists. Through this combined effort, an estimated 20 million people have been introduced to the Lake Erie watersnake and its conservation story—an amazing accomplishment for a species with one of the smallest home ranges of any animal in the U.S.
Thanks to the conservation efforts, by 2008, the snake's population sizes exceeded the number of individuals needed for recovery of the species. With over 11,000 animals, the total population size was nearly twice that of the required size.
"The commitment of all of our partners contributed to this great success," says Ohio Division of Wildlife's Terrestrial Endangered Species Administrator, Carolyn Caldwell. "Only through this continued commitment will this remarkable recovery be sustained."
In 2011, the watersnake became the 23rd animal to join the recovery club. Its story is a shining example of how successful the recovery process can be through partnerships and proactive conservation strategies. Over the next several years, this dedicated team of partners will continue to monitor the watersnake's status through similar efforts used during the recovery period.
Kristin Stanford, Ph.D., the Education and Outreach Manager at Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory and Recovery Plan Coordinator for the Lake Erie watersnake, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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