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 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. 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 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 100-200 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 annually since 2016 in order to prevent reptile road mortality.
  • Ongoing enhancement within 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 every year since 2015.
  • Delivery of over 340 Massasauga stewardship packages and 500 outreach door hangers to local residents and reaching dozens of park users per year via opportunistic outreach efforts. With the help of our partners, we installed 6 Massasauga habitat signs and 1 interpretive panel at a local park, and 8 wildlife crossing signs on local roads at roadkill hotspots.
  • Helping to designate the 24km2 Ojibway Prairie Complex and Greater Park Ecosystem (OPCGPE) in Ontario’s Windsor-LaSalle region as an “Important Amphibian and Reptile Area” by the Canadian Herpetological Society (see Resources).
  • Identification of suitable Massasauga hibernation habitat within a provincial park, to inform where future releases could take place.
  • Initiating the permitting process at the local, provincial and federal levels to secure the permissions needed to begin long-term population augmentation 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, 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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