Bitter controversy erupting over endangered snake living on small Lake Erie island

coiled blue racer snake [Credit: Jon Fife]

A rare snake is stirring debate on a small island in Lake Erie. The blue racer is an endangered species that exists nowhere in Canada but Pelee Island and regulations protecting the animal have led to controversy and disagreement among (human) residents.

The conflicts centre on development and tourism, which are having difficulty growing due to the snake’s protected status. On the tiny island (just 42 square kilometres), in order to get approval for a new development, builders must demonstrate the impact the building would have on the blue racer, and if a snake is found on property where there are plans to build, the entire process may be halted.

“We’re very conscious of how important [blue racers] are to our community, but it creates huge hurdles when it comes to development,” Rick Masse, mayor of the Township of Pelee, told TVO. “The hurdles are so high that [visitors] give up on trying to build a cottage here or do something here.”

Unfortunately, blue racers seem to have a low tolerance for living in close contact with humans. Habitat loss and road accidents are their leading causes of death, so the more humans develop Pelee, the less likely the snakes are to survive.

Conflicts over the snakes have become so heated that some residents have had to leave. Ben Porchuk, a biologist, was part of a blue racer recovery project in the 90s, but when he won grants to restore the snake’s habitat and track its numbers, pro-development advocates were upset.

“There was quite a bit of vandalism that had happened to my things,” Porchuk said. “There was one incident after another and I finally decided I was going to go somewhere it wasn’t as difficult to make a difference.”

In 2013, scientist Jacqueline Litzgus decided to ask the community if they would support her in performing a funded three-year study. However, residents voted against the study. “I didn’t have to go to them. I didn’t have to have their vote,” Litzgus said. “But I wanted to because I didn’t want to make a problem, I didn’t want it to be a difficult situation.”

For his part, Mayor Masse says that because the island community is so small, it must either grow or perish. “Our land mass is finite,” he said. “If our community can’t grow, we’re on a death path. And that’s what’s happening. All our young families are leaving because there are no opportunities.”

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