A Butler’s gartersnake under foliage. Photo: Kathleen Woodhouse

For over a decade, our team in Windsor, Ontario has been working tirelessly to implement recovery actions targeting massasauga rattlesnakes at the Ojibway Prairie Complex and Greater Park Ecosystem (aka. “Ojibway Prairie”). Along the way, our team has successfully developed a technique for artificial hibernation of snakes and is gearing up for the exciting next step of our first conservation translocations with massasauga rattlesnakes. We also recently expanded our efforts as part of the Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery program (OPRREC), with the addition last year of the endangered Butler’s gartersnake as our second focal species. Guided by techniques developed for rattlesnake recovery, we began steps for population augmentation of Butler’s gartersnakes at Ojibway Prairie. The increased efforts of the OPRREC team have made for an exciting 2023 field season.

A massasauga rattlesnake sheltering. Photo: WPC

For the first time in the history of OPRREC, three different species of snakes were hibernated in artificial hibernacula during the winter of 2022-23: massasaugas, Butler’s gartersnakes, and eastern gartersnakes (a surrogate species). For the second year in a row, 12 massasaugas were artificially hibernated at proposed release sites with 100% survival! The success with massasaugas (and with eastern gartersnakes before them) is evidence that our proposed release sites support suitable hibernation habitat.

Success has also given our team the confidence to expand the artificial hibernation technique to Butler’s gartersnakes. Fifteen of these endangered snakes were artificially hibernated this past winter, as a first step towards the recovery of a declining subpopulation. Survivorship of hibernated Butler’s gartersnakes was within the range we previously observed in eastern gartersnakes of the same age class. Artificial hibernation provides us with a means to validate release site suitability, and also exposes captive reared snakes to a hibernation period prior to release—which actually may improve translocation outcomes.

Massasauga rattlesnake overwintering in an artificial hibernaculum. One of twelve rattlesnakes overwintered in 2022-23, all of which survived. Photo: Kathleen Woodhouse

WPC’s OPRREC team continued its spring and summer monitoring activities at Ojibway Prairie in 2023, while expanding surveys into other areas of Windsor-Essex. As part of Butler’s gartersnake recovery activities, our team continued to intensively monitor two subpopulations at the Ojibway Prairie and another two inhabiting natural habitat corridors in a more heavily urbanized area. We also surveyed 11 other areas across Essex County in an effort to reconfirm historical observations of Butler’s gartersnakes. We are thankful to the Essex Region Conservation Authority, a member of the OPRREC Working Group, who provided permission to survey many of their properties. The OPRREC team was able to confirm the presence of at least one SAR reptile species at 4 of the 11 sites, including Butler’s gartersnakes at 1 site.

This summer, our team took some important steps in our efforts to improve snake translocation techniques. In preparation for massasauga translocations we conducted a trial release with four eastern gartersnakes, and applied a suite of potentially beneficial translocation tactics. The snakes were surgically implanted with radio transmitters, which will allow the team to monitor their movement behaviour, site fidelity, and overwinter survival. This information will help guide our choice of specific tactics to use during massasauga translocations. We owe many thanks to Dr. Kate Sweetman of the Downtown Veterinary Hospital, in Windsor, who conducted surgeries, as well as Dr. Anthony Braithwaite who provided assistance. Also this summer, we completed our first trial release of a small number of juvenile Butler’s gartersnakes, which were marked with small microchips (PIT tags). Our automatic PIT readers will tell us if any snakes return to the release sites to hibernate.


Kathleen Woodhouse, Lead Field Technician, radio tracking an eastern gartersnake in the Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve. Photo by Alexis Simeoni

As we move into fall and winter, field work will continue to progress towards the conservation of endangered snakes.

This winter will bring the second year of artificial hibernation of Butler’s gartersnakes, as well as a doubling of the number of hibernated massasaugas. Our first massasauga translocation is just around the corner. Stay tuned for exciting announcements in 2024!

WPC appreciates funding support provided by the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks’ Species at Risk Stewardship Program for WPC’s Ojibway Reptile Recovery Program.

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