Snake unique to Lake Erie saved from extinction

Project Summary: The Lake Erie watersnake, a subspecies of the Northern watersnake found only on Lake Erie’s islands, was brought back from the brink of extinction. With the watersnake’s population nursed back to nearly 12,000 animals, it became just the 23rd species to be taken off the federal Endangered Species list.


Project name: Lake Erie watersnake recovery.

Location: Put-In-Bay, Ohio.

The Lake Erie watersnake is found only on Lake Erie’s islands.

Description: The Lake Erie watersnake was driven to the brink of extinction in the 1990s by residents of the Lake Erie islands who considered it a nuisance and killed thousands of the snakes. Development also destroyed much of the watersnake’s natural habitat. The federal government placed the watersnake on the Endangered Species list in 1999. That listing prompted the development of a recovery plan, which established population goals for the species, made it illegal to kill or harm the snakes and protected its habitat. Intensive education and outreach programs increased public awareness of the snake, its plight and its role in Lake Erie’s ecosystem. Those efforts built public support for protecting the snakes — which aren’t poisonous but will bite when threatened — and even landed the snakes a spot on the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” show.

On the brink of extinction in the 1990s, the Lake Erie watersnake’s population now numbers close to 12,000. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

Approximate cost of project: $3.7 million, which included $241,000 in Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds.

Resource challenges addressed: Recovery of an endangered species and loss of wildlife habitat.

Key partners (public and private): U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Northern Illinois University, Lake Erie Islands Chapter of the Black Swamp Conservancy, Western Reserve Land Conservancy, Put-in-Bay Township Park District, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and The Ohio State University Stone Laboratory.

Types of jobs created: Biologists, clerical staff and general laborers worked on the project.

Results and accomplishments: The Lake Erie watersnake population is approaching 12,000 snakes. In 2011, it became just the 23rd species — joining the bald eagle, American alligator and the peregrine falcon — to be removed from the federal Endangered Species list. About 300 acres of the watersnake’s inland habitat and 11 miles of shoreline also were protected.

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Originally Published: May 8, 2012