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Lake Erie Watersnake
A Case Study for Successful Recovery
The Lake Erie watersnake (LEWS) lives on beautiful islands in Lake Erie, islands where people like to live and play. Unfortunately, human beings and snakes sharing such close quarters led to the Lake Erie watersnake being a victim of unregulated killing and habitat loss. So much so, that the Lake Erie watersnake was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act on August 30, 1999.
Shortly after listing, a Recovery Plan was prepared. That plan outlined criteria that, when achieved, would indicate that the Lake Erie watersnake would no longer be threatened with extinction and thus would no longer need Endangered Species Act protection. Those criteria included: 1) population goals for individual islands as well as across the species’ range; 2) goals for habitat protection throughout the range and specific goals for individual islands; and 3) reduction of mortality caused by humans.
A group of dedicated researchers, islanders, non-profit organizations, and government agencies came together to carry out the recovery plan. They have been resoundingly successful. The group focused on informing islanders and visitors about snakes, protecting and managing habitat, and monitoring the snake's population. Here are some of their accomplishments.
Informing Islanders and Visitors about the Lake Erie watersnake
- Yard signs were given to island residents who wanted to display their support for conserving Lake Erie watersnakes. The 11" x 14" metal signs were very popular and are now seen on docks, trees, and cottages throughout the islands.
- A larger version of the sign, with the same picture but a different message, was placed at parks, boat docks, and ferry landings. The sign reads, “Lake Erie Watersnake and Habitat Protected by Federal and State Law. To report violations, call: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (419) 625-9713 Division of Wildlife (419) 625-8062.” The purpose of these signs was to notify tourists, visitors, and others not familiar with island wildlife, that the snake is a protected species. The sign provided contacts for reporting violations.
- Kristin Stanford, a Ph.D. student at Northern Illinois University, began a telemetry study on Kelleys Island in 2000 and quickly expanded her work to all aspects of Lake Erie watersnake recovery, including extensive outreach. Kristin (aka the Island Snake Lady) gives presentations, meets with landowners, teaches school children, writes "Ask the Snake Lady" columns in local papers, created the “Respect the Snake” website (RespectTheSnake.com), and appeared on Discovery Channel’s "Dirty Jobs!"
- In 2007, Kristin Stanford and the F. T. Stone Laboratory provided seventeen 10 to 13 year old children a chance to catch and process Lake Erie watersnakes, conduct radiotelemetry, and visit a recently constructed artificial hibernaculum that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Division of Wildlife used to mitigate watersnake habitat loss.
- Over 500 visitors saw and handled captive amphibians and reptiles from the Lake Erie area and observed Lake Erie watersnake census techniques and feeding experiments at a Herpetology Open-House. Kristin Stanford and the F. T. Stone Laboratory, with participation by members of the Northern Ohio Association of Herpetologists and the Cincinnati Herpetological Society, organized and hosted the event.
Habitat protection and management
- Technical assistance on project designs is provided to area residents planning construction projects through guidelines and personal visits by Service staff. Our goal is to conserve the Lake Erie watersnake and avoid conflicts for area residents by having information available early in the planning stage for projects that may affect LEWS or habitat.
- Agreements between Ohio DNR and the Service resulted in all Ohio DNR island properties being managed to ensure that LEWS habitat is preserved, and that management activities (such as mowing) do not harm LEWS. All ODNR island properties now count towards the “habitat protection and management” goal identified in the LEWS Recovery Plan, and provide a majority of the total protected habitat.
- Preserves and easements on private lands purchased by the Lake Erie Islands Chapter of Black Swamp Conservancy will protect habitat in perpetuity for the Lake Erie watersnake, and other island wildlife, while contributing to the “habitat protection and management” goal identified in the LEWS Recovery Plan.
- The Ohio Department of Natural Resources purchased 589 acres (87 percent) of North Bass Island, much of which provides important and high quality snake habitat. The $17.4 million purchase was partially funded by grants from the Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of the Interior. . The state plans to preserve the island's natural setting and offer campsites, hiking, hunting, fishing, swimming and nature study.
The population and range of the species has grown steadily
- The adult population has increased from 5,450 in 2001 to 11,810 in 2007.
- Dr. Richard King and Kristin Stanford coordinate an annual Lake Erie watersnake survey called “Nerodio” to obtain information for population size estimates. Nearly 1700 LEWS were captured, measured, marked, and released during the 2007 two-week census period. More than 20 people participated, including current and former Northern Illinois University students, students from other colleges and universities, professional herpetologists, area naturalists, and island-region residents.
Recovery of the Lake Erie watersnake has progressed at record speed. The populations are on track and as of 2007, all populations had met the Recovery Plan goals for six consecutive years. The only habitat still needed to fully achieve the protected habitat criterion is 4.91 acres within 69 meters of shore on South Bass, and ODNR was recently awarded a FWS Section 6 HCP Land Acquisition grant for $1.835 million to fund the purchase of a property in the next few months that will fully satisfy that criterion
Surveys of public opinion are planned in 2008 to gauge whether or not human-induced mortality is a significant threat to the LEWS, and a 5-year review of the recovery plan during 2008 will indicate how well the recovery process is progressing. If all continues to go well, it is possible that the FWS will begin the delisting process for the LEWS in the fall of 2009.