Reaching out to “save our snakes”

Reaching out to “save our snakes”

Megan Seymour

Upon arriving at any of the scenic and popular islands of western Lake Erie, visitors encounter an unusual message: “Watersnakes welcome here!” More than 200 signs describing a unique creature, the Lake Erie watersnake (Nerodia sipedon insularum), are found on most of the U.S. islands of the Put-in-Bay archipelago. These signs are the most visible part of a diverse outreach campaign to inform island residents and millions of yearly visitors of the uniqueness and protected status of the Lake Erie watersnake, or LEWS as it is often called.

This snake is endemic to the islands in the western Lake Erie basin of Ohio and Canada. Because of the snake’s very limited geographic distribution and the effects of intentional extermination, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that an intensive outreach campaign could help. Service biologists reasoned that focusing on the harmless nature of the snake and its significance to the islands’ natural heritage might curt) human fear, and in turn limit snake persecution. So began the campaign to, as one local student described it, “Save Our Snakes!”

Even the most fervent nature lover might recoil when first encountering a LEWS. Although the snakes are harmless and non-aggressive, their size (adult females may be up to 5 feet or 1.5 meters in length) and occasional unwillingness to move out of the way can make them an unappreciated animal. In addition, the shoreline, where the snakes bask in the summer, and the nearshore waters of the lake, where they forage for fish, are the major congregation areas for tourists, boaters, anglers, and swimmers, leading to human-snake encounters. This, coupled with the public’s general fear of snakes, has resulted in high human-induced mortality.

Outreach efforts, so far, have attempted to inform people that the snake is harmless, unique to the Lake Erie islands, part of the natural heritage, and a protected species. The “Watersnakes welcome here” signs are just a small part of the Service’s outreach effort. Even more widely distributed than the signs is LEWS News, the biannual Lake Erie Watersnake Newsletter. Mailed to all island residents, partnering agencies, island parks, and other interested parties, LEWS News addresses issues such as ongoing research, habitat management, “problem” snakes, recovery progress, habitat conservation plans, and the significance of biodiversity. A variety of photos, games, and reader-submitted items complement the articles.

Reader submissions to the newsletter have included winning entries from the LEWS poster, poetry, and essay contests held at the island schools. Students submitted stories, drawings, and poems describing why the snake is important. Winners and participants received prizes and recognition at an awards ceremony, and the winning picture was featured on LEWS posters and brochures. By instilling a conservation ethic among the young island residents, the Service hopes to encourage an appreciation for the snakes that will last into the next generation and beyond.

As part of the effort to keep local residents informed about current LEWS issues, the Service and Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife (ODNR) regularly issue press releases and involve the media in emerging topics of interest. Television shows such as “Wild Ohio,” radio broadcasts on WOSU and the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, and articles in numerous newspapers, magazines, and newsletters contribute toward public awareness of the LEWS.

The Service and ODNR have also published guidance to aid in planning development and land management activities. The Service’s “LEWS management guidelines for construction, development, and land management activities,” ODNR’s “Shore Structures and the LEWS,” and ODNR’s “LEWS–Make your boating experience more pleasant” document ways to avoid or minimize impacts to the snake and its habitat.

The most significant outreach accomplishment of the Service/ODNR partnership is the establishment of a permanent snake researcher on the islands. Kristin Stanford, the “Island Snake Lady” as she has come to be known, provides a personal contact for islanders, and helps bridge the gap between residents and agencies. She provides one-on-one, site-specific guidance to islanders with snake issues, writes a regular “Ask the Island Snake Lady” column for the local paper, operates an e-mail address for snake questions, and presents numerous LEWS presentations for various groups throughout the year. She has been invaluable in promoting tolerance and stewardship of the LEWS and its habitat among island residents.

The joint efforts of the Service, ODNR, and researchers to inform islanders and visitors about the significance of this unique animal are making an impact. Populations fluctuated during the late 1990s and early 2000s, a period that coincides with intensive public outreach efforts and the snake’s listing under the Endangered Species Act, but in general the population is increasing. Awareness of the snake’s protected status also appears to be increasing, as reports of intentional killing of snakes have decreased. People continue to spread the message: “Watersnakes welcome here!”

The Lake Erie watersnake is listed federally as threatened, the state of Ohio and the Canadian province of Ontario consider it endangered. Human persecution is the most significant and well-documented cause for the decline of this snake in both the U.S. and Canada.

A common public misconception that the snakes are venomous, coupled with an unfounded fear of snakes in general, led to widespread eradication efforts.

Megan Seymour, a wildlife biologist in the Service’s Reynoldsburg, Ohio, Ecological Services Field Office, can be reached at (614) 469-6923, ext. 16.

COPYRIGHT 2004 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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