Endangered Ontario: The massasauga rattlesnake and the serpent specialists striving to save them

The conservationists working to rescue the province’s only venomous snake have to fight not just habitat loss, but also public fear of the reptile
By Tim Alamenciak - Published on Jul 17, 2017
The massasauga rattlesnake is at-risk in some parts of Ontario and endangered in others. (shoemcfly/iStock)

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When it comes to endangered species in need of rescue, pandas command big cuddly bucks. But snakes, who face threats from cars — and from outright persecution — are a tougher sell.

Ecologist Michael Colley of Wildlife Preservation Canada has made it his cause to fight not just for snakes, but for Ontario’s only venomous snake: the massasauga rattler.

“The immediate thought is, why would you protect something that’s dangerous? We see that with other things — cougars or black bears and wolves. It’s just an inherent danger that people perceive,” says Colley, who ran a conservation project for several years in Killbear Provincial Park, near Parry Sound. “They can obviously exist in harmony with people and have been doing it in Killbear for 50 years.”

In fact, humans have been far more deadly to the massasauga than vice versa. In the 1950s at Killbear, wildlife officers exterminated the snake, thinking it posed a threat to park visitors. They wised up in the ’70s and, rather than killing the snakes, tried moving them out of the park.

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“Research showed that was actually killing them, because they have such fidelity to where they live,” Colley explains. A massasauga that can’t find its hibernation grounds will freeze to death. (The snakes hibernate under rocks, in root pockets, or in rodent burrows.)

Today, conservationists focus on two things in their efforts to save the snake: education and reducing road mortality. They go hand-in-hand, since drivers who are made aware of the snake may be apt to drive more carefully in areas where it nests.

Colley spent a year scanning every road in Killbear Provincial Park for wayward snakes. He and a partner tallied 50 kilometres a day on their bikes, part of an effort to determine the effectiveness of fencing and eco-passages (specially designed tunnels under the road) in the park. They found the fences kept massasaugas off the road, while the tunnels allow the snakes to get to their destinations safely.

Colley also tracked snakes using radio tags injected under their skin, as well as readers at the entrances to the eco-passages. Just like the security gates at Walmart can detect someone shoplifting, so the eco-passage gates detect snakes moving through them.

The education component of the two-pronged conservation effort is vital and could help humans and the snakes live in peace. The massasauga is not a typical venomous snake: it’s shy, preferring to avoid confrontation whenever possible, and its rattle keeps predators away from the slow-moving serpent. Really, Colley says, the massasauga just wants to be left alone.

“Yes it's a venomous species and it should be treated with respect, but it's not an extremely dangerous snake,” he adds. “If you treat it with respect you don't have to worry about getting hurt.”


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The at-risk populations in Georgian Bay and the Bruce Peninsula are large compared with those in Windsor and Port Colborne, where the massasauga lives near high-density development and is classified as endangered. The population in Windsor is tiny: just 15 specimens live in the Ojibway Prairie Complex, a network of five parks interspersed with urban development. Ecologist Jonathan Choquette is working with Wildlife Preservation Canada to help the population recover, but it’s an uphill battle.

“Not only are there the biological challenges of recovering a reptile in an urban environment, but there’s also the sociological challenges of getting people on board and trying to address not only the fear but also the hatred or aversion to snakes that exists in some people,” Choquette explains.

His group has been conducting door-to-door outreach in areas the massasauga calls home. It’s an effort to make sure people not only know about the snake, but also know how to handle an encounter with one.

“People tend to historically have maligned snakes and hated them and killed them and not necessarily been as supportive of snakes and snake recovery as more charismatic species,” says Choquette.

In 2003, four adult snakes were rescued in Windsor. They faced near-certain death due to development in the area. Researchers used the opportunity to determine how well the snakes' offspring would fare when introduced to a new home. All 27 captive snakes died by the end of their first hibernation. It’s not clear what caused the deaths, but it’s now certain that the species is incredibly sensitive to location.

This sensitivity, combined with human population growth in southern Ontario and small snake populations in Windsor, means Choquette’s work exists on a razor’s edge.

“It’s a bit of a miracle that these things are still persisting in the landscape they’re persisting in,” Choquette says.

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