A Snake’s Worth
Around the Georgian Bay in Ontario, it has long been common to kill massasauga rattlesnakes on sight. But decades of public education have taught locals to share the land more mindfully with this ecologically important species. Now, the arrival of a highway through critical habitat has sparked a new wave of care and investment to preserve this threatened snake.
TEXT & PHOTOS Laurence Butet-Roch
In a nook formed by three suitcase-sized rocks, a stout grey snake with dark brown bowtie-shaped patches is coiled, basking in a sunbeam. The female rattlesnake has selected this prime piece of real estate facing Georgian Bay in Ontario as her gestation site. For most of the summer, she will pass her days lying on, around, or underneath this trio of banded dark- and light-coloured rocks, regulating her temperature as she bears her young.
“Once they’re born, in late July or early August, after about a week with them, she’ll leave to go on a feeding frenzy because she has to gain her weight back up before hibernation,” explains Glenda Clayton, the former species-at-risk coordinator for the Georgian Bay Biosphere. She’s standing a metre away from the snake, making sure that her tall frame doesn’t cast a shadow on the pregnant mother enjoying the warm rays of the sun.
For over a decade, with great patience and good humour, Clayton has been teaching the public about the province’s only venomous snake, earning herself the nickname “the snake lady.” Now retired, she still jumps at any opportunity to dispel persistent myths about the danger they pose and even convince her audience to celebrate their presence upon the landscape.
Spanning 347,269 hectares on the eastern coast of Georgian Bay from Port Severn to French River, the Georgian Bay Biosphere is home to 20,000 people, 840 native plant species, 170 breeds of birds, 44 different kinds of mammals, and 34 types of reptiles and amphibians. Fifty of these species are at risk, including the massasauga rattlesnake. The region, with its mix of heat-absorbing rock barrens, wetlands, and moderate climate, is exactly what the massausagas need to breed and survive cold Canadian winters. Today, it is one of the last remaining habitats in the country for the threatened ophidian. And their numbers have dwindled. The once-prevalent snake used to turn up commonly, especially in the evenings; now they can only be found after a careful search.
Hearts and minds
The Georgian Bay isn’t just a haven for rattlesnakes — it’s also a hot spot for tourists, cottagers, and year-round residents, thanks to its revered landscape, which famously inspired the Group of Seven, and its proximity to Toronto. It’s an easy two-and-a-half-hour drive on a widened highway, with the exception of an 85 km single-lane stretch in the region’s north.
The project to expand Highway 400, which runs from Toronto to Sudbury and is part of the Trans-Canada network, dates back to the late 1980s and has progressed sector by sector ever since. In 2020 Ontario’s provincial government reaffirmed its commitment to improving connectivity with the north of the province to improve public safety, reliable transportation, and economic opportunity. But the proposed route, which would run alongside the current one, would alter important habitats for many species at risk, including the massasauga rattlesnake.
Given the stakes, the general manager of the Georgian Bay Biosphere, Greg Mason, argues that “we need to ask ourselves why we are so intent on building a four-lane freeway. There’s definitely an irony in wanting to come here to enjoy the beauty of the environment, but requiring the convenience of a twinned highway.”
Encouraging locals and authorities to rethink their habits is key to the organization’s effort to foster more harmony between the area’s human and animal inhabitants.
The UNESCO Biosphere designation doesn’t come with any jurisdictional power; rather, it creates a soft form of influence that stems from their public outreach and the networks they create. “Having authority is not necessary,” says Mason. “Rules can only get you so far. You still need to bring people’s hearts and minds on board.”
Its value is its presence
Up until the 1970s, concern for the venomous snake was largely non-existent. Even in protected areas like Killbear Provincial Park, rangers would promptly kill them, fearing that they would trouble visitors. As a result of this persecution, as well as the destruction and fragmentation of their habitats for roads, cottages, and other development, their numbers dwindled to the point that they could disappear if nothing is done to reverse the trend.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes,” reflects Richard Noganosh, an Elder at Magnetawan First Nation, an Ojibwe community on the southern shores of Byng Inlet. “Every year something goes missing. But a lot of people don’t notice. I haven’t seen a killdeer yet this year, and very few butterflies. It scares me. All of it is here for a reason. Snakes are here for a reason.” Crucially, massasaugas help keep rodent populations down and provide sustenance for herons, hawks, and eagles.
“Is that the end-all and be-all?” asks Glenda Clayton, who drives an electric vehicle with a sticker that reads: “I Brake for Turtles and Snakes.” “No. This is its home, its habitat. They are an integral part of the landscape. I’m a firm believer that its value is its presence.”
Over the years, the Georgian Bay Biosphere and its partners have sought to convey that sense of the snake’s intrinsic worth, beginning with how to live side by side with them. The first step is to address misconceptions about how dangerous they are. “They’re not vicious. In fact, they’re humble beings,” says Tianna Burke, who replaced Clayton as species-at-risk coordinator when she retired in September 2017. “This makes it very easy to share the landscape with them. We just need to pay more attention.”
The key to preventing a rattlesnake bite is to watch where we’re stepping and be aware of our surroundings. Massasaugas are not aggressive creatures. They rely on camouflage and stillness to avoid predators, will rattle if one gets too close, and will only bite if it’s absolutely necessary. “They are more scared of you,” reminds Noganosh in a soft voice. “That’s why the Creator gave them a rattle to use as a signal; so people who aren’t paying attention wouldn’t step on them.”
For the Ojibwe Elder, the reminder to be more mindful in nature aligns with the creature’s role in the world. Snake is a protector who warns us when we consume too much. “I was always told to just take what you need and leave the rest for others,” he adds, pausing to let the teaching sink in.
Fidelity to home
At the moment, work on widening the stretch of highway that cuts across the northern part of the Biosphere has been halted as the Ministry of Transportation negotiates with First Nations along the way. In the meantime, stakeholders within the Georgian Bay Biosphere are using the interlude to learn more about the behaviours of the massasaugas.
This work is already producing useful data. Studies conducted between 2012 and 2015 by Ron Black, an affable wildlife biologist long employed by the Ministry of National Resources, demonstrated that massasaugas are incredibly loyal to their homes. Year after year, they return to the same hibernaculum and gestation rock, even when moved away or when a barrier, such as a road, stands in their way. “This shows just how valuable the habitat is. You can’t destroy it lightly,” says Black. The low 15.8 per cent success rate of this experiment suggests that multiple rounds of relocation would be necessary to offset the impacts of the proposed construction.
This growing evidence of massasaugas’ site fidelity might compel conservationists to change their approach. Exclusion fencing that prevents the snakes from travelling to their preferred spots, or moving them even just a few metres for our convenience, might actually lead to a slow death, as they will continue to try to return to their home.
In light of these findings, staff from the Georgian Bay Biosphere, Scales Nature Park, and Magnetawan First Nation, among others, continue to walk the land, eyes peeled for the rock formations that massasaugas are fond of. They use long hooks to tap around them lightly, waiting to hear the distinctive rattle. When a snake is found, it is measured, weighed, tagged (either with a small passive integrated transponder or by painting one of the rattles), photographed, and geolocated. Along the way, they give names to some of the rattlesnakes they find. Meghan Britt, who began working this spring as a field technician with Scales Nature Park, a centre focused on the conservation of Canadian reptiles and amphibians within Ontario, called her first found specimen “Megatron,” inspiring a trend of Transformer-inspired names like Bumblebee, Ratchet, and Starscream.
Aside from finding strategies to mitigate the effects of road construction, organizations like the Georgian Bay Biosphere also want homeowners to think of massasaugas when designing their vacation eden. We can reimagine what landscaping looks like, says Clayton. Rather than moving the table rocks favoured by the rattlesnakes and seeding a lawn, she recommends only clearing a narrow path that would allow you to see where you’re stepping. “But for the rest, leave it undisturbed for the animals.”
Massasauga rattlesnakes teach us about how to be good guests, says Hope Hill, who came from Six Nations to Magnetawan First Nation to work with the species-at-risk team this summer: “This is their home, so we need to give them the care and respect that they’ve shown us in allowing us to enjoy their homes.”
To learn more about how the people of Georgian Bay are mitigating the impact of increasing numbers of cottagers and a new four-lane highway on the region’s endangered species, check out Episode 5 of Striking Balance, a TVO original documentary.