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Endangered Species Success: The Lake Erie Watersnake Recovers
Photo Credit: Kristin Stanford
Achieving recovery of an endangered species is a huge accomplishment; doing it in just over a decade is remarkable. Thanks to the efforts of a dedicated team of federal, state, local and private partners, the Lake Erie watersnake’s (Nerodia sipedon insularum) status changed from threatened with extinction to fully recovered within just 12 years.
In August 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Lake Erie watersnake, found on offshore islands in western Lake Erie in Ohio and Ontario, from the list of threatened and endangered species.
"Today the Lake Erie watersnake joins species such as the bald eagle, the American alligator, and the peregrine falcon that have rebounded from the threat of extinction and no longer require the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA),” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. “These species — and the hundreds of others whose extinction has been prevented by the [ESA] — are living testimonies to its ability to bring species back from the brink by protecting them and conserving and restoring their habitat.”
The Service listed the Lake Erie watersnake as a threatened species in 1999. Threats to the species included intentional killing and loss of its shoreline habitat on Lake Erie to development. In 2003, the Service finalized a recovery plan that called for protecting habitat and educating the public and stakeholders about reducing threats to the species. In cooperation with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and other partners, biologists worked to minimize and reduce the threats to the snake by sustaining and protecting summer and hibernation habitat and ensuring the permanent protection of shoreline habitat.
Photo Credit: USFWS
Critical research, including an annual intensive Lake Erie watersnake census begun in 2001, provided data that identified when the species had achieved its population goal and threats to its survival had been reduced. In addition, public education programs provided awareness of the snake, its plight and its important role in the ecosystem.
The criteria for considering the snake recovered is a combination of several factors: the population has at least 5,555 snakes on the U.S. islands, sustained for six years, and its key habitat is protected.
Through continued habitat protection and public education, the Lake Erie watersnake population grew to about 11,980 in 2009, and has exceeded the minimum recovery level since 2002. About 300 acres (121 hectares) of inland habitat and 11 miles (18 kilometers) of shoreline have been protected for the snake since it was listed.
Partners in the efforts to recover the Lake Erie watersnake include the ODNR, Northern Illinois University, Lake Erie Islands Chapter of the Black Swamp Conservancy, Western Reserve Land Conservancy, Put-in-Bay Township Park District, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and The Ohio State University Stone Laboratory.
The ESA requires that a species be monitored for a minimum of five years after delisting to ensure that the species remains stable after its protections are removed. The Service and the ODNR have developed a post-delisting monitoring plan to verify that the species remains secure from risk of extinction after the protections of the ESA no longer apply.
Lake Erie watersnakes remain listed as endangered by the state of Ohio so killing them is still illegal under state law.
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