Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Friday, 29 January 2016

Challenges: snakes vs development

The previous post introduced some of the better known reptilian members of the Pelee Island community: Blue Racer, Lake Erie Water Snake and Eastern Fox Snake. All are legislated Species At Risk (SAR), protected under both provincial and federal legislation. This creates challenges for landowners, for the municipality and for those who want, or are tasked with, their protection.
Blue Racer
Lake Erie Water Snake
Eastern Fox Snake
Now if these SAR were restricted to one location and didn't move, it might be less challenging. There are numerous plant species which are also at risk, but they can be a little easier to deal with. A single plant and its immediate habitat can be protected. A large population is a little more difficult, however. Or if it is a breeding bird, it only spends a few short weeks in its breeding habitat, and the rest of the time it is involved with other aspects of its life cycle: busy getting ready for migration, or actually on migration to points which may be hundreds or thousands of kilometres south in the tropics. However snakes represent different challenges:
-they aren't generally appreciated in quite the same way as plants or birds;
-they entire life cycle may require as much as 200 hectares, although often less;
-some spend a fair bit of their entire life cycle within a 100 metres or so of the shoreline;
-they sometimes will use anthropogenic features, such as buildings or wells;
-when they are active, they are often hard to find;
-when they are hibernating for 6 months of the year or more, they are a lot harder to find.

By now you will be aware of some of the appealing aspects of Pelee Island to human visitors. Waterfront property is highly sought after, and therein lies the conflict. Some waterfront properties really are right on the water front. The property shown in the image below, has very little stable land base. There is barely enough room to get a vehicle off the road before you are on a dynamic beach! And anyone who has had experience with waterfront property on Lake Erie is well aware of the effects of wave action, changing water levels and such.

 Typically these shoreline properties, in their natural state, are great habitat for these endangered reptiles, whether it is sandy shoreline or rocky shoreline. A vegetated rocky shoreline is even more ideal for these snakes.

 Even rocky shorelines that have been left to mature for a few years can be quite useful to some species.

Nonetheless, people are attracted to a spot, and proceed to build sometimes a substantial property in a rather exposed location. So they adapt. Some will build on stilts, so that they can get a better view of the water, but also so that severe wave action can go under the building.

Other people will go to the expense of having huge chunks of armour stone placed in front of the building, to break the wave action. Of course any of this alteration usually results in a significant loss of habitat for endangered species. If it is left alone for long enough after it has been altered, it might revert to some type of habitat, but what are the species supposed to do for the years it takes to develop?

In the past couple of decades while I was with OMNR, my colleagues and I were frequently asked to evaluate a property with respect to endangered species habitat. We sometimes found the snakes themselves, but not that often due to their shy and retiring nature, or if it was the time of the season when they wouldn't be out. So we had to think like a snake, and look for features that they would likely use. Sometimes it was a hole in the it an access point to a hibernation site?
 Sometimes it was the structure of the vegetation, which would be useful for healthy populations of small mammals which would be, in the case of Blue Racer and Eastern Fox Snake, their main food source.
We had to look at everything that a reptile might need over the course of the season. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, any significant need of their life cycle that was missing, would be potentially deadly for the population.

Sometimes we found other Species At Risk in the course of our site visit.
Common Hop-tree
Common Hop-tree (Ptelea trifoliata) is a Threatened species also protected by legislation, and is restricted in Canada to places like Rondeau, Point Pelee and Pelee Island. As it turns out, it is very common on Pelee Island, so when it shows up on a property that is being evaluated, it may add to the development limitations that can occur.

There were a lot of properties where some development was allowed, although with limitations. There were other properties that had so much critical habitat on it for SAR, that there were very few if any development options. And of course that led to the inevitable question of fairness. Should a landowner have the right to develop what ever s/he wants on property that they own? That question can lead to some very lively and passionate me!! But the bottom line is that part of the reason there are so many species at risk in southwestern Ontario is because so much of it has been developed. The municipality of Chatham-Kent and Essex County have the dubious distinction of having only 4%-5% natural area remaining at best, and even that is under threat from so many outside influences, including invasive species, fragmentation, air quality, water quality, loss of hydrological function, etc. So as a 'progressive and responsible' society, can we not protect even 5% of our natural area and the species that require it?

There are sometimes some alternatives, and I will be dealing with that in a future post where a highly contentious development led to an interesting resolution.
Jimaan at rest


  1. Hi, your post about Pelee Island reminded me of a visit I made a few years ago to the island. I lucked out and found several water snakes actively fishing. They would swim out from shore, catch fish and swim back with it in their mouths. An amazing event to witness. I wanted to send you an image of it but couldn't find your email address here(probably right in front of me but darned if I could find it).

    1. Hi Scott. Thanks for your comment. Water snakes are indeed some amazing creatures, well adapted for their environment.

      You can send me the pic at the email address at the top right hand side of the blog post.