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  (pictured above), Butler’s gartersnakes and a critically endangered population of Massasauga rattlesnakes. This 24 km2 area was recently designated 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% over the last 40 years, due to a history of habitat destruction, road mortality, intentional killing and illegal collection for the pet trade. The population is now on the brink of extinction, with fewer than 20 individuals remaining in the wild.      
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 enhancing critical habitat, mitigating threats, conducting public outreach, protecting and connecting habitat, and laying the groundwork for long-term population augmentation using techniques such as conservation breeding and translocation. We are currently assessing the suitability of hibernation habitat in several areas, to inform where future releases could take place. A robust monitoring regime will allow 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:

  • Investment of over 1000 person–hours in the field annually in order to monitor reptile populations, assess threats and increase surveillance of key habitat features.
  • Submission of over 200 Species at Risk observations each year to provincial databases, therefore increasing habitat protection.
  • Surveying of over 1000 km of roads annually to document road mortality hotspots and guide mitigation projects. We installed over 375m of barrier fencing in 2016 and 2017 in order to prevent reptile road mortality.
  • Enhancement of over 9ha of Massasauga habitat via removal of invasive plants and creation of over 100 woody debris structures for Massasauga shelter and gestation (birthing). We confirmed that pregnant female Massasaugas used the artificial gestation sites we created in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
  • Delivery of over 340 Massasauga stewardship packages to nearby residents and reaching an additional 200 people per year via public outreach efforts. With the help of our partners, we installed 6 Massasauga habitat signs, 1 interpretive panel, and 8 wildlife crossing signs at roadkill hotspots.
  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 Ontario. 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, 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.  

Jonathan Choquette leads 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 at ‘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 worked for organizations ranging from COSEWIC, 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. A list of his publications and reports can be found here.

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