BY NATE SMELLE
Anne Yagi began working with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) as a Management Biologist on the Massasauga Rattlesnake Recovery Team in 1998. Last fall the Fonthill resident retired from the MNRF to focus her research on restoring this endangered species to its native home here in Niagara.
According to Yagi, habitat loss due to urban expansion throughout the Niagara region, and its entire range, currently poses the biggest danger to the species. Its remaining habitat in the Wainfleet Bog is not the most suitable for the species, she explained, because it is essentially composed of what’s left over from the mining of peat moss that took place there from the 1930s until the 1990s. At that time, said Yagi, the whole area where the Massasauga was thriving was drained and mined for peat moss to be used in people’s gardens.
Adding to the severity of the damage this industry caused was the way the peat was extracted. Because peat bales were cut from of the surface during the winter when the snakes were hibernating, Yagi said many of them didn’t stand a chance. The peat industry was not the sole factor contributing to Ontario’s only venomous snake becoming endangered. They are also killed out of fear and collected for sale in the illegal pet trade.
“Even though they seldom bite, they were constantly being killed whenever anyone saw one,” said Yagi.
“Over the last 20 years we’ve been trying to change the mindset of the people living around the bog. We’ve been trying to teach them to live with the snakes, if they happen to see them.”
Luckily for the Massasauga Rattlesnake, the difficulty in accessing its prime habitat provides slim chances to see one of these snakes. The populations in Wainfleet and Windsor are now designated as endangered. In the Bruce Peninsula and along the eastern shores of Georgian Bay they are listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act.
With man-made climate change producing more frequent extreme weather conditions, the Massasauga Rattlesnake faces new threats to its critical habitat. In 2006, the future of this endangered species slipped even further into jeopardy when the hibernation site in the Wainfleet Bog experienced extensive flooding. The flooding of the hibernation was caused by a heavy snowfall (15 to 30cm) in early October that year, which was followed soon after by two and a half inches of rain.
“It flooded right at a really critical time for snakes when they are looking for their hibernation sites, because the home back to them,” she explained.
“They’re really stuck in set patterns. We know we lost all of the snakes that we knew were in there because we never saw them again.”
When Yagi and her team went in to the bog the following summer, they found only one of the snakes that had been born in their area of study. During that time, she said the population fell from approximately 300 snakes to about 100.
Exacerbating the problems for the Massasauga Rattlesnake is the fact the bog has caught fire twice in the past five years — once in 2012 and then again in 2016. While climate change did play a factor in these fires, Yagi said they were at least partially due to the bog being drained too quickly for agricultural purposes. She said the best way to prevent the bog from catching fire again in the near future is to provide farmers with a different drainage system. This way, she said, they will be able to continue farming and the wetland will be able to exist without catching fire every few years.
Bog fires are extremely dangerous to fight and very costly to extinguish, she said. Pointing out that the municipality fighting these fires is the same one draining it, Yagi said it is in the best interest of their community to take immediate action. Since the fires, she has been lobbying the municipality, the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, and the MNRF to separate the farm’s drains from the drains necessary to allow for ecological restoration.
“With climate change the fluctuations in our patterns are so much faster now, and severe droughts and flooding are happening more frequently,” Yagi said.
“Wetlands are designed to absorb the water, so we need to let them, and not try and drain it off so fast. Then we will start to see more dynamic ecological stability in the ecosystem. We’re not saying it’s always going to be wet or it’s always going to be dry, but it has the capability of a pattern of holding and draining water. It doesn’t have to be a man-made, manipulated drainage system anymore. There is no need for it.”
Through her research at Brock University, Yagi has been working to help the Massasauga Rattlesnake overcome these man-made obstacles. With help from her master’s supervisor, Dr. Glenn Tattersall and her team at Brock, she has developed a technique called “forced hibernation,” which improves the odds of survival for the snake. This technique entails ensuring that the neonatal snakes have a fair shot at surviving the winter by placing them in an area where they will be able to hibernate in peace. Yagi explained that since these snakes exhibit a homing behavior similar to turtles and salmon, forced hibernation takes the “guesswork” out of their selection of a hibernation site.
“I put them in the ground where I know they will survive,” she said.
“I know they will survive because they have a space underground that is maintained over winter, that’s above the groundwater table and below the frost-line that it doesn’t freeze. When I take them out of that artificial burrow I have made for them, if they survive that summer they will home back the next fall to that area.”
Yagi said the goal of the forced hibernation technique is to prevent the decline in numbers and eventually increase the Massasauga Rattlesnake populations. To her delight it seems to be working. This spring, they have observed an increase in the population found in the study area. As the first snakes released in this area three years ago reach sexual maturity they are expected to renew the lifecycle, connecting another generation to the safe hibernation area they have been inhabiting.