One of the rescued Butler’s Gartersnake from Aamjiwnaang, that will receiving the needed protection and help.

By Colin Graf

AAMJIWNAANG FIRST NATION—Now that spring is blossoming across the land, and creatures are awaking and showing themselves again, some of nature’s smaller cold-blooded citizens will be receiving protection and help in Aamjiwnaang First Nation.

Rescuing stranded turtles, removing endangered snakes from a worksite, helping to create safe nesting places for reptiles are all in a day’s work for Dennis Plain, the species-at-risk technician for Aamjiwnaang.

While the community is known for living under the shadow of the complex of refineries and chemical plants, known as “Canada’s Chemical Valley”, Aamjiwnaang also has woodlots and fields that are home to a variety of reptiles, including at least one endangered species.

While efforts to protect reptiles have been underway for several years, the community will be continuing the work with new money from the Ontario government. The First Nation will receive up to $62,560 in 2017-18, and the same again for 2018-19 from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to help protect the endangered Butler’s Gartersnake.

The money will help protect the dwindling population of the small striped snake.  It was found in 61 different areas in Ontario just 10 years ago, but those locations have shrunk down to only two or three today, according to Plain.

While it was known that Aamjiwnaang had a significant population of the snake, it was only after the local Environment Committee partnered with university researchers in 2014 that it became clear their snakes were related to other small pockets of the reptile across southwestern Ontario, says Plain. That understanding emphasized the need to care for the tiny populations in order to preserve them and maybe help them link up and spread further afield, he explains.

The only place in the world where Butler’s Gartersnake is found is the lower Great Lakes region, according to the Ontario Ministry’s website.  In Ontario, the population is concentrated in two areas, within 10 kilometers of the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, and the St. Clair River. It looks very similar to the Common Gartersnake.

Aamjiwnaang has taken a strong stand towards the protection of reptiles and amphibians in recent years.  About a year ago, the community erected 12 road signs reminding residents and visitors alike to be careful of turtles and snakes crossing local roads.  Spring is an especially vulnerable time as the creatures are very active laying eggs or giving birth to live young, much like the Butler’s Gartersnake. The signs are located near wetlands, ditches, and other areas the reptiles are known to nest.

“Road mortality is a real threat,” says Plain about the road signs, based on Indigenous art logos used also at the Metro Toronto Zoo. “We want everyone to be careful because we share this land with them.”

Along with the road signs, his group wants to enlist Aamjiwnaang’s people and the wider Sarnia community, to take other steps for reptile protection. For one thing, he wants residents to try and leave some longer grass on their properties to create more space for snakes. Some people think long grass encourages mosquitoes in the summer, but that’s not really true, he says. Some are responding to that request for a small strip of longer grass, but “it’s a hard sell. People really like their mowers.”

Plain is also working with owners of electrical lines running through Aamjiwnaang to reduce their grass-cutting in summer.

Still, he finds people are beginning to respond to his work. Recently, a resident moved a snapping turtle across the road it was trying to cross and called Dennis to check and make sure it was okay.

According to the Ministry, the loss of tall-grass prairie habitat due to development in the highly urbanized areas of southwestern Ontario is the main reason for the endangerment of the Butler’s Gartersnake.

Plain also keeps a watchful eye on local development and he’s not shy about using his authority to shut down construction sites or take on big industry if they are not following regulations that require them to take steps to protect snake habitat.

When Sun-Canadian Pipelines were conducting an “integrity dig” to check on the state of their line on First Nation’s land adjacent to Sarnia’s Chemical Valley plants in 2016, Plain remembers going up to the workers and asking them what steps they had taken to mitigate dangers to snakes, such as a “snake fence,” made out of textile that extends upward about half a metre, but also has to be buried underground to ensure reptiles can’t dig under the barrier. The work stopped and the fence was put up the same day, he recalls.

In another incident, a local developer was building a retail operation when Plain stepped in, asked for the work to wait until he could search the area for snakes, and eventually had to get help from provincial officers to force the work to halt. He found and removed 18 of the Butler’s, and found several dead. Still, Plain doesn’t like to be forceful.

“We just wanted to be there to help out, not to stop work,” he says.  “Really we’re just asking people to give us a call and let us in the day before [construction starts].”

One problem Plain and his helpers faced was where to find new homes for rescued snakes. That led him to convince family members with land to help remove invasive plant species and restore native prairie grasslands on 19 hectares of land to create ideal snake habitat. He also set about building a hibernaculum, an underground winter home for the reptiles. They dug a six-by-six foot hole and partly filled it with gravel and rocks on top of an area where crayfish were plentiful. The baby crayfish may provide food for the snakes, but more valuable are the holes crayfish burrow in the ground. The snakes “steal” the holes to hibernate in during winter, Plain says.

If residents think they have Butler’s Gartersnakes on their property, Plain asks them to leave the creatures alone, and call him instead. He wants everyone to know only people with a permit to handle species-at-risk, such as himself, are allowed to pick up the creatures.