Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery

The Ojibway Prairie Complex and Greater Park Ecosystem (OPCGPE) in Ontario’s Windsor-LaSalle region is home to several reptile species threatened by urban development, habitat fragmentation and road mortality, including eastern foxsnakes  Butler’s gartersnakes, and a critically endangered population of Massasauga rattlesnakes. This  24 km2 area was designated in 2016 as an “Important Amphibian and Reptile Area’” by the Canadian Herpetological Society (see Resources). The Massasauga rattlesnakes found here are isolated from other Canadian populations by over 300 km. As the only population in Canada to live in tallgrass prairie habitat, they represent an ecologically and genetically unique entity. Unfortunately, their range has plummeted 95% from 1975 to 2015, due to a history of habitat destruction, road mortality, intentional killing and illegal collection for the pet trade. Because so few individuals remain, the population is now on the brink of local extinction.

In 2013 we began implementing conservation actions recommended in the Recovery Strategy for the Massasauga in Canada (see Resources). Our focus was on population monitoring, threat assessment, and an analysis of the feasibility of population recovery. In 2015 we launched the Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery program (OPRREC), in order to greatly expand our previous work, establish a reptile recovery working group (see Program Partners), and begin addressing important challenges identified in the feasibility study (see Resources). Since that time, we have been busy working with our partners to enhance critical habitat, mitigate threats, conduct public outreach, protect and connect habitat, and prepare  for long-term population augmentation using techniques such as conservation breeding and translocation. A robust monitoring regime allows us to evaluate the success of our various recovery projects and to adapt techniques as required.

Some of the highlights of the OPRREC program include:

  • Invested an average of 1,130 person-hours annually conducting surveys and inventories in the field for the purpose of population monitoring, threat identification, and effectiveness monitoring.
  • Submitted of over 1,820 SAR observations to provincial databases – an average of 364 records per year – to aid in the identification and protection of SAR and SAR habitat.
  • Collected data on over 5,515 road killed vertebrates – an average of 1,104 records per year – to guide installation of temporary and permanent reptile barrier fencing.
  • Installed an average of 287 m of temporary or permanent fencing annually to prevent road mortality or human-snake conflict.
  • Conducted habitat enhancement activities within an average of 5.8 ha of Massasauga habitat annually, including control of invasive Phragmites, creation of over 155 woody debris features, and removal of over 775 kg of invasive herbaceous plants. We confirmed that SAR snakes used our woody debris features an average of 11 times per year.
  • Delivered over 2235 Massasauga stewardship outreach packages/pamphlets/door hangers to households, businesses, and public facilities adjacent to Massasauga habitat – an average of 448 materials distributed annually. Partnered with City of Windsor and Town of LaSalle to install 6 Massasauga habitat signs and 1 interpretive panel at a local park, and 8 wildlife crossing signs on local roads at roadkill hotspots.
  • OPRREC staff or projects were featured in 60 media stories and 70 online blogs and social media posts. We performed 19 presentations related to Massasauga or SAR recovery at Ojibway Prairie aimed at audiences ranging from local to international.
  • Conducted over 515 face-to-face or telephone questionnaires with local residents, park users and medical professionals – an average of 103 questionnaires per year – to gauge support for Massasauga recovery and approaches to mitigate human-snake conflict, and to evaluate effectiveness of our public outreach.
  • Responded to or reported 15 incidents of SAR snake habitat disturbance or destruction, and provided formal comments on 13 local or regional plans/documents/guidelines potentially impacting Massasauga Critical Habitat.
  • Spearheaded the development of the Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery Working Group, and coordinated and facilitated an average of 4 meetings per year.
  • Secured over 1675 volunteer hours and over $1,000,000 in cash and in-kind contributions toward Massasauga and SAR recovery at Ojibway Prairie.
  • Secured a ‘Notice of Entry’ with Infrastructure Ontario annually beginning in 2017 to permit management activities along of a 5km long, 43 ha utility right-of-way to increase its function as a wildlife corridor linking Massasauga habitat.
  • Partnered with Lakehead University to nominate the 24 km2 Ojibway Prairie Complex and Greater Park Ecosystem (OPCGPE) as an ‘Important Amphibian and Reptile Area’. The OPCGPE was officially designated by the Canadian Herpetological Society as an IMPARA in 2016.
  • Identified 4 potential Massasauga release sites at Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve and installed 10 artificial hibernacula across these sites. Evaluation of their potential use for translocations began in 2018 using humidity gauges, frost tubes, groundwater wells, and intentional hibernation with live Eastern Gartersnakes.
  • Initiated the permitting process at the local, provincial and federal levels to begin long-term population augmentation of Massasaugas using captive-bred snakes.
Our major goal is to prevent the disappearance of the Ojibway population of Massasauga rattlesnakes, in order to maintain the geographic distribution, genetic diversity and ecological variation of this species in Canada. Our work is also designed to benefit several other species at risk, including the Butler’s gartersnake, eastern foxsnake and many species of plants unique to Ontario’s tallgrass prairies. If we are successful we will have stemmed the tide of extinction from one of the rarest ecosystems in Canada.

Choquette, Jonathan D. and Hand, Alexis V. (2021) “Informational Signage Increases Awareness of a Rattlesnake in a Canadian Urban Park System,” Human–Wildlife Interactions: Vol. 15 : Iss. 1 , Article 18. DOI: https://doi.org/10.26077/9e24-0dc5

Choquette, J., M. Macpherson, and R. Corry. 2020. Identifying Potential Connectivity for an Urban Population of Rattlesnakes (Sistrurus catenatus) in a Canadian Park System. Land 2020, 9, 313.
https://doi.org/10.3390/land9090313

Choquette, J., and L. Valliant. 2016. Road mortality of reptiles and other wildlife at the Ojibway Prairie Complex and Greater Park Ecosystem in southern Ontario. The Canadian Field-Naturalist 130 (1): 64-75.

Choquette, J., and E. Jolin. 2018. Checklist and status of the amphibians and reptiles of Essex County, Ontario: a 35 year update. The Canadian Field-Naturalist 132 (2): 176-190.

 

Jonathan Choquette is Wildlife Preservation Canada’s Lead Biologist of the Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery Program.  Jonathan has over ten years of academic, volunteer and professional experience working with reptiles and amphibians. He earned a B.Sc. in Biology (2007) and a Master’s in Landscape Architecture (2011), both from the University of Guelph. His MLA thesis focused on identifying habitat corridors for Massasauga rattlesnakes in a fragmented, urban landscape. Jonathan has worked with several species of ‘at risk’ reptiles, including Butler’s gartersnakes, eastern foxsnakes, five-lined skinks, Lake Erie watersnakes, prairie rattlesnakes, spotted turtles, wood turtles, and queen snakes. He has completed contracts for Environment Canada, Huron Stewardship Council, and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. He served as a volunteer board member for the Canadian Herpetological Society from 2014 – 2017 and is a member of the Society for Conservation Biology.  Jonathan is currently pursuing his Ph.D. part-time at Laurentian University on the use of conservation translocations as a tool to recover Massasaugas.  A list of his publications and reports can be found here.

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