Environment
4:30 pm
Tue August 16, 2011

Victory for Lake Erie watersnakes

What do a Lake Erie watersnake, a bald eagle, and an American alligator have in common?

They've all rebounded from the threat of extinction and no longer require the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

The only place these snakes are found in the world is on the western edge of Lake Erie in Canada and Ohio.

The snakes were listed as threatened in 1999 because of habitat loss and because humans often killed them.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the tide has turned for the watersnake. The Service published a rule in the Federal Register today delisting the species. From a USFWS press release:

Recovery criteria include a combined population of at least 5,555 snakes on the U.S. islands, sustained for six years, and protection of key habitat.

Through continued habitat protection and public education, the Lake Erie watersnake population grew to about 11,980 in 2009, and has exceeded the minimum recovery level since 2002. About 300 acres of inland habitat and 11 miles of shoreline have been protected for the snake since it was listed.

Back in 2005, reporter Rebecca Williams traveled down to the islands in Lake Erie to witness researchers taking their annual snake census - aka "Nerodeo" - "that’s Nerodia, the snake’s scientific name, and rodeo, as in cowboy roundup.":

The snake biologists don’t just look under rocks. They dive into the lake for snakes. They sneak up on piles of snakes and then grab the whole writhing mass.

The snakes bite. The researchers' arms are covered in snakebites. The bites aren't life threatening, but they're really, really bloody. And then it comes to the job at hand. The biologists are going to force the snakes' stomach contents out. They call it "barfing the snakes."

And what were they barfing up? Mostly round gobies - an invasive species. So here is a case where native species are taking a bite out of an invasive species' population.

The Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe did an episode on the job of a Lake Erie watersnake researcher in 2006 (the snakes poop, pee, bite, and release a musky smell when they're caught).

You can watch Rowe drop to his knees and get chomped on by a Lake Erie watersnake at about 6:20 in this video:

The snakes are still listed as endangered by the state of Ohio, so killing them is still illegal under state law... no matter how much they bite you.