One of the last female eastern massasauga rattlesnakes in the Ojibway Prairie population using a brush pile.

The Ojibway Prairie Complex and Greater Park Ecosystem is home to a small population of eastern massasauga rattlesnakes. These rattlesnakes and other at risk snakes in the area are threatened by residential development, habitat fragmentation, road mortality, and human-snake conflict. Conflicts between rattlesnakes and people can occur when these animals are encountered on park trails or if they inadvertently wander into residential backyards adjacent to their protected habitat.

We tackle the issue of human-snake conflict in a few ways. First, we try to educate park users with outreach pamphlets and signage to inform them that they are sharing the park with a legally protected endangered species. Second, we deliver outreach door hangers to residents that live next to rattlesnake habitat asking them to call us first if they find a rattlesnake in their yard, instead of killing it. Finally, in some residential areas we are trying to prevent negative human-snake interactions altogether by installing permanent snake barrier fencing.

This past winter, while our lovely massasaugas were deep in their underground slumber, the Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery (OPRREC) Team was hard at work upgrading an existing chain-link fence with a snake barrier mesh. This chain-link fence is situated on the boundary between a subdivision and parkland that is occupied by eastern massasaugas. If maintained properly, this snake mesh will act as an effective barrier between the resident’s backyards and the snake habitat, keeping people and their pets safe while protecting an endangered species.  Our team managed to install almost 220m of fencing this winter, with written support from each and every adjacent resident. This successful project did not materialize overnight, however, and was the result of years of careful planning.

 

How the fencing project started – lots of community consultation!

The planning process started back in early 2016. At that time a questionnaire survey was conducted with property owners adjacent to the park to better understand general knowledge about snakes, and level of support for Massasauga recovery as well as various recovery techniques. In particular, we wanted to determine which residents were interested in a snake barrier between their properties and the park. Some people liked the idea and some didn’t, so we used this data to focus our efforts on a residential area with relatively high support. We later followed-up with those people using an open-ended questionnaire and showing them photos of different options of snake barrier mesh. We then narrowed down our product choice based on resident preferences, secured provincial and federal funding and relevant permits, were granted permission from the municipality, and then went back to the residents one final time to secure their written permission for the project. Most people in the area know about our recovery work already and we received an overwhelmingly positive response to our request. After completing this important background work, we were finally able to implement our plan!

Before (left), during (middle) and after (right) vegetation removal along a section of chain-link fence upgraded with a snake barrier mesh. The middle picture shows the large White Mulberry tree that was partially growing in the fence and had to be removed.

But the work wasn’t over yet…in fact the really hard work was just beginning.  It took weeks to remove all the vines, shrubs, roots and small trees growing against, on, and through the fence. To make matters even more difficult, there were still a few larger trees (White Mulberries and Manitoba Maples) that were either growing right up against the fence, or right through it! These definitely impeded our progress and needed to be removed by chainsaw. One White Mulberry in particular was so large that we needed the professional help of a tree removal service (Shout out to PDQ4U Urban Tree Removal Services!).

A happy ending!

When the dust cleared, we used the surplus woody debris from all our hard work to create woody debris piles elsewhere in the park, thus enhancing the park’s habitat for Massasaugas.

By reducing the likelihood of negative human-snake interactions, and keeping rattlers in the parks, our good quality snake barrier fence will ensure that rattlesnakes and residents in West Windsor and LaSalle remain great neighbours!

– Jennifer Barden (Lead Field Technician) and Jonathan Choquette (Lead Biologist), Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery.