Nerodia sipedon insularum. Photo Credit
WASHINGTON, D.C. - A non-poisonous gray snake that lives exclusively on Lake Erie's limestone islands has grown sufficiently in population to be removed from the nation's endangered species list.
Conservationists attribute the Lake Erie watersnake's dramatic recovery to a decade long public relations campaign and swelling numbers of an invasive fish from Eurasia - the round goby - which the snakes love to eat.
On Monday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the snake has joined the bald eagle, peregrine falcon and the American alligator in no longer being endangered. It is the 23rd endangered species to be delisted due to recovery.
"Our lake faces many challenges, but the recovery of the Lake Erie watersnake is living proof of what we can accomplish by working together," said Toledo Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur.
Ohio State University snake specialist Kristin Stanford, who leads a yearly drive to count Lake Erie watersnakes, says there are now between 12,000 and 15,000 of them, a tenfold increase since they made the list in 1999.
Although the 1 1/2- to 3 1/2-foot-long snakes are being removed from the federal list, they will continue to be protected in Ohio. Purposely killing one could still result in a fine of up to $1,000, says Stanford. Population levels will be monitored for at least five more years to ensure the species remains stable.
“As with most conservation success stories, the comeback of the Lake Erie watersnake is the result of different groups of people working toward a common goal," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.
Stanford, who calls herself the "Island Snake Lady" and whose snake counting work has been featured on the Discovery Channel show "Dirty Jobs," says the snakes were so ubiquitous when European explorers first arrived in Ohio that the Lake Erie Islands were initially named "Islands of Serpents."
Their numbers declined between the 1950s and 1980s, as the islands became a popular vacation destination and settlers destroyed their habitat and killed them in the mistaken belief they were venomous.
"If you pick them up and try to mess with them, they bite and poop and squirm and do what's necessary to make sure you leave them alone," says Stanford. "They prefer to be left alone."
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lake Erie watersnakes are closely related to northern watersnakes, but lack the other species' prominent bands. The all-gray snakes were better able to survive by camouflaging themselves on the islands' limestone, helping them to avoid consumption by birds, foxes and raccoons.
Stanford and others began an informational campaign to publicize the snakes' history in the region, and the fact that no snakes around Lake Erie are poisonous. She said Ohio's only poisonous snakes - copperheads, massasauga rattlesnakes and timber rattlesnakes - live farther south.
The arrival of round gobies in Lake Erie - a bottom dwelling fish that came from the Black and Caspian seas via ballast water from ships - crowded out native fish like madtom, stonecat, and longperch, but helped Lake Erie watersnakes rebound.
More than 90 percent of their diet is round gobies, and the snakes' size, and reproductive rates have exploded since the invasive species arrived, says Stanford.
"You hear a lot of negative things about invasive species, but a lot of times you don't hear about the positive impact," says Stanford. "With the watersnake, it was a positive impact."