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Published: Tuesday, 8/23/2011

COMMENTARY

Life finally goes swimmingly for Lake Erie water snake

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE COLUMNIST

I never thought I'd get goose bumps about a snake.

But after slithering through government bureaucracy for 12 years, the Lake Erie water snake came off the federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife last week.

That should be a source of pride for all of us in the Great Lakes region.

For once, public outreach has worked. If the region can rally around a temperamental snake, what else can it do?

Conquer Asian carp? Clean up decades-old pollution hot spots? Rid the lakes of foul algae that jeopardizes our public health, drives down our property values, and curtails efforts to promote the region as a tourism destination?

The recovery of the Lake Erie water snake is a small victory. But it's a victory nonetheless.

It's not the first notable comeback. Bald eagles have recovered nationally, but especially in the Great Lakes region. Scientists largely credit the DDT ban that eventually came in response to the late Rachel Carson's landmark 1962 book, Silent Spring, which challenged conventional thinking about DDT and other pesticides. Silent Spring is widely regarded as the advent of the modern environmental movement and was the literary precursor to Earth Day, which is also steeped in Great Lakes connections.

The Lake Erie water snake is not a mighty raptor that serves as America's national symbol. It's not warm, fuzzy, and cute. It's not even as functional as the pesky mayflies that came back in a big way after vanishing for more than a generation. Mayflies are, at least, tasty little morsels for fish and birds.

Nope, the Lake Erie water snake is like a lot of us: harmless when left alone, ornery when annoyed.

It has no poison. It bites only when it senses danger or -- how do I put this? -- when people get between it and its love interest during mating season.

The Lake Erie water snake is geographically challenged. It's found only on the Lake Erie islands.

As the islands drew more people, the snake's numbers plunged. Many died from having their heads cut off or clubbed with shovels.

Enter Kristin Stanford, an ambitious 34-year-old researcher who went public with a simple message after arriving at Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island a little more than a decade ago: Respect the snake.

You don't have to love it. Just respect it.

State and federal biologists had a recovery plan in place long before she arrived on the scene. But Ms. Stanford -- affectionately known as the "Island Snake Lady" -- became the most visible and highest-profile face of it.

In addition to her countless public appearances, she worked hard on new campaigns to get the word out via public meetings, pamphlets, the Internet, public service announcements, and any other mode of communication she could imagine.

Since 2002, she has led an annual two-week snake census in which as many as 60 scientists and volunteers scour the islands to catch, measure, tag, and weigh snakes.

Her big break came in 2006, when she was featured with television personality Mike Rowe on the Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs reality show, getting the irritable-yet-lovable snake into the national limelight. The episode, which lives on through the magic of YouTube, was a hit with audiences: The snakes unleashed foul-smelling feces and musk on the two humans and regurgitated partially digested fish.

Hundreds of wildlife species have been listed as endangered or threatened. The Lake Erie water snake, which went on the federally endangered species list in 1999, is only the 23rd species to have rebounded enough for delisting, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said it "joins species such as the bald eagle, the American alligator, and the peregrine falcon that have rebounded from the threat of extinction and no longer require the protection of the Endangered Species Act."

Ms. Stanford noted it is a "rare honor" for researchers to see their efforts through to delisting.

To be delisted, the snake had to maintain its island-area population at 5,555 for at least six years. Its current population is about 12,000. About 300 acres of inland habitat and 11 miles of shoreline have been protected to help aid the snake's recovery, the federal wildlife agency said.

Happiness among herpetologists was short-lived, though.

Monday, the Center for Biological Diversity -- while lauding Lake Erie water snake recovery efforts -- said it is focusing its efforts on the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. That snake has practically vanished from Louisiana and is fighting to keep what little foothold it has in other parts of the South.

The group said it is working with two other organizations to seek protected status for the rattlesnake under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, which barely survived an attempt to have its powers weakened five years ago by Congress.

"The Endangered Species Act just saved the Lake Erie water snake," said Collette Adkins Giese, a conservation biologist with the center. "It's the surest tool we have to save the diamondback rattlesnake too."

Tom Henry is an editorial writer and columnist for The Blade.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.



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