Lake Erie Watersnake Recovered, Endangered Species Act Protection Removed
On August 16, 2011, the Department of the Interior removed the Lake Erie watersnake, (a harmless species found on offshore islands in western Lake Erie in Ohio and Ontario), from the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife (News Release) (101k PDF). The snake becomes the 23rd species to be delisted due to recovery. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife 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 to development.
The Service finalized a recovery plan in 2003 that called for protecting habitat and providing outreach to reduce threats to the species. In cooperation with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife (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. 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 outreach programs provide awareness of the snake, its plight and its role in the ecosystem.
Recovery criteria include a combined population of at least 5,555 snakes on the U.S. islands, sustained for six years, and protection of key habitat.
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 of inland habitat and 11 miles 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 Act requires that a species be monitored for a minimum of 5 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 (348k PDF) to verify that the species remains secure from risk of extinction after the protections of the ESA no longer apply. Lake Erie watersnakes are still listed as endangered by the state of Ohio so killing them would be illegal under state law. Furthermore, the Service continues to recommend that residents implement voluntary conservation actions during construction and land management activities (Guidelines) (99k PDF) to ensure that the Watersnake population remains at recovery levels.
Appearance: Adult Lake Erie Watersnakes are uniform gray in color or have incomplete band patterns. They resemble the closely related northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon), but often lack the body markings, or have only a pale version of those patterns. Lake Erie Watersnakes grow to 1 1/2 to 3 1/2 feet in length. They are not poisonous.
Habitat: The snakes live on the cliffs and rocky shorelines of limestone islands.
Reproduction: Young snakes are born mid-August through September. The average litter size is 23 young.
Feeding Habits: The snakes feed on fish and amphibians.
Range: Lake Erie Watersnakes live on a group of limestone islands in western Lake Erie that are located more than one mile from the Ohio and Canada mainlands. All Lake Erie Watersnakes found on those islands are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Watersnakes on the Ohio mainland, Mouse Island, and Johnson's Island are not protected under the Endangered Species Act.