The road less travelled: keeping reptiles off our roadways

This neonate eastern foxsnake (Pantherophis vulpinus) was found crossing the road by an OPRREC technician between surveys.

To the reptiles and amphibians living in the Ojibway Prairie Complex, roadways pose a grave threat. Roads create a deadly game of chance for any animal wishing to cross them – especially for smaller creatures. The additional long-term effect of this is habitat fragmentation, and the resultant creation of disconnected subpopulations of animals with reduced genetic diversity. The Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery (OPRREC) team has been surveying roadkill along roadways in the Ojibway Prairie Complex and Greater Park Ecosystem since 2010, and there’s no question that road mortality is amongst the greatest threats to our at-risk reptiles. Major roads in the Ojibway Prairie Complex see thousands of cars per day. Twice per year snakes navigate across these roads en masse as they migrate to and from their overwintering sites. Female turtles can also travel across roads in search of suitable nesting grounds – and the hatchlings then face a perilous journey back to the water.

There are many different methods that can be used to mitigate the threat of roads to wildlife. Ideally, a reduction in vehicular traffic would be the most effective solution. The OPRREC team, alongside local conservation groups, has requested permanent or temporary road closures in areas where road mortality is the highest – while allowing continued access to local businesses and homes – but unfortunately no closures have been implemented to date by local governments. In the meantime, we have also been pursuing alternative solutions, such as preventing animals from accessing roads. In the past our team has installed temporary silt fencing along roadsides during the reptile active season. The problem with this approach is that it’s… well, temporary. And while it’s relatively inexpensive and straightforward to install, these fences require time and labour twice each year to be installed and taken down again. We needed a more long-lasting solution.

Reptile exclusion fencing, constructed in 2020 by the OPRREC team.

In 2020, the OPRREC team successfully installed 300 metres of permanent reptile barrier fencing at the Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve. Again, in 2021 we had another 200+ metres installed at the same location. There are many different types of barrier fencing which have shown to be effective for snakes and other reptiles, but the method we have employed utilizes chain-link fence affixed with galvanized steel mesh. This combination been carefully chosen based on durability, aesthetics, ease of installation and maintenance, cost, and – most importantly – its effectiveness. The steel mesh is affixed to the interior (ecosystem-facing) side of the fence. It’s installed 100 cm above ground to prevent snakes from climbing over (even a large eastern foxsnake would have difficulty!), and it’s buried 20 cm below ground to keep small mammals from burrowing under and creating exit holes for snakes. On the road-facing side of the fence, the bare chain-link will allow snakes to climb over to safety. These barrier fences will prevent animals from accessing the road by redirecting them back in towards the prairie, and in the future will guide them towards safe crossing areas such as culverts or ecopassages.

An eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) inspects a barrier fence installed by the OPRREC team.

The Windsor-Essex region has experienced an historical and ongoing loss of reptile and amphibian species. The ongoing loss of individuals to road mortality, especially adults,  can be detrimental to the viability of our remaining reptile populations – but roads don’t have to be a major threat. Barrier fencing has been shown to reduce, or in some cases nearly eliminate, road morality. Our barrier fencing project is just one of the ways we’re working towards a future where humans can live alongside healthy, thriving reptile populations.

Kelly Antaya

Field Technician – Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery

Kelly started working with Wildlife Preservation Canada as an intern, and is now a field technician. She has worked in reptile conservation throughout Ontario, and has also assisted on population studies of skinks and snakes on islands in northern Madagascar. Kelly is a graduate of Fleming College, where she received her diploma in ecosystem management.