Thursday, March 24, 2011

Snakes alive! And she wants them to stay that way

The Lake Erie water snake may have to pack up and move.

For the past couple of weeks, wildlife biologists have relocated the endangered snake from areas on Middle Bass Island where a state-funded marina project is underway.

"Some of the habitat area is affected, and we're taking measures to protect (the snake)," Lake Erie Islands park manager Scott Doty said.

About 140 acres of the snakes' habitat is threatened by the project, which is scheduled for completion in about a year.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources launched the $13 million marina expansion last year, and ongoing construction this summer killed three adult snakes, Lake Erie water snake specialist Kristin Stanford said. If the construction company kills more than 20 snakes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could pull the permit that allows the construction company to work on the island.

If the permit is pulled, federal agents will likely initiate a consultation with the company and look at other measures to protect the snake population, Stanford said.

"It could definitely delay the project timeline, and there's always a possibility that -- if it's serious enough -- the feds could stop the entire project," Stanford said. "I don't think that could happen, but it's definitely a possibility."

ODNR communications chief Cristie Wilt said the state is aware of the snake situation.

"I think we're going to do everything we can to prevent this from happening," Wilt said. "Before we get close to 20, we would better evaluate how we would protect the snakes. We want to make sure we're doing everything we can to protect the snakes."

Wilt said the state would implement other measures to protect the snakes. She referred all other questions to ODNR project manager Dave Kieffer, who was not available for comment.

Stanford works with a team of wildlife biologists who tag and track the snakes found on all the Lake Erie islands. The snakes -- when threatened -- will bite, but Stanford said the minor pain is worth the effort to save the animal.

"It's just part of my job," said Stanford, aka snake lady. "I think they're just cool. They're a neat animal."

To further protect the snakes, the construction company erected a 3-foot fence around the construction site to prevent the animals from returning.

Stanford's team marks the solid gray snake with green and blue chalk and relocates them to the south side of the island. If the snakes sneak back into the construction zone, they will know their relocation effort and the fence are not working.

"Surveying that site, we are seeing them," Stanford said. "That's a good sign that they are staying put."

Another consideration when moving these animals is their safety.

"There have been other attempts of relocation for other snake species where they don't handle it well," Stanford said.

About 30 snakes have been relocated, and researchers plan to attach transmitters to six snakes to observe their behavior and activity level. The news so far is encouraging, Stanford said.

"It looks like it's not too big a deal for these guys," she said.

While water snakes are a natural predator for some invasive species like the round goby, the snake is a historical mainstay that should not be overlooked, Stanford said.

"There's always been snakes here," Stanford said. "I think that protecting something that is inherently part of this region's historic habitat is something that's really important."

Lake Erie water snakes have made a comeback in the past 10 years.

In 1999, their population was about 2,000, but has since improved to 11,000 snakes in 2007.

Stanford's efforts and "the public's awareness and support have helped the population rebound," Doty said. "We still have work to do, but it's very encouraging."

PULLOUT -- Lake Erie Water Snake

* What -- Non-venomous snake that can grow to 4 feet and weigh 2 pounds.

* What does it eat? -- Bottom-dwelling fish and amphibians.

* Where -- Only located on the Lake Erie islands.

* How many -- Population was about 2,000 in 1999, but rebounded to 11,000 by 2007.

* Features -- Solid gray snake that can have distinct bands. Unlike most snakes, the Lake Erie water snake does not lay eggs, but gives live birth to its young.

* Protection -- Remains on the state and national endangered species list.

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