Biologists rush to help Montreal snake species threatened by real-estate boom

MONTREAL — A Quebec biologist is highlighting the need to save some of Montreal’s open areas from development in order to protect a rare snake that is found nowhere in the province except in the Greater Montreal area.

The Ecomuseum Zoo recently finished installing hibernation caves and shelters in three nature parks in an effort to help the brown snake, whose grassy habitat is threatened by a real-estate construction boom.

Biologist Pierre-Alexandre Bourgeois said the 39 rock shelters and three caves will help the small reptile hide from predators, hibernate and catch its prey, which mostly consists of slugs, snails and earthworms.

But he says more action will be needed in the long term to protect Quebec’s “most urban snake,” whose habitat includes the open lots which are increasingly being snapped up for developers.

The brown snake’s plight highlights the difficulty of drawing attention to species that less cute and cuddly, and to the need to protect less scenic open areas that are often seen as ‘vacant’ or ‘underused,’ he said.

“It’s a brown snake, it’s not very appealing to many people,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s always a challenge to make people understand that the brown snake and its habitat are important.”

Because the snake is shy and good at hiding, Bourgeois said it’s almost impossible to know how many are left.

While it’s unlikely to be in imminent threat of extinction, what is clear is that its habitat has declined, he said, citing a study of the area’s open lots that found that up to 20 per cent them disappeared in the ten-year period between 2002 and 2012.

“At the pace of destruction of uncultivated areas, we may end up in a situation where they will be concentrated in only the few protected areas where there are grasslands and a concentrated population,” he said.

Unlike wetlands or mature forests, open fields have no protected status and are usually the first to be snapped up by developers, Bourgeois said.

But he said they still house important ecosystems that are home to not only snakes but also birds, monarch butterflies, small mammals and a slew of pollinating insects.

Bourgeois said awareness is increasing, and several municipalities including Montreal have expressed an interest in better protecting open spaces for the benefit of both animals and people.

The next phase of the Ecomuseum’s project, he said, involves continuing to enhance the habitat for snakes in existing parks and working with municipalities to help them devise their own plans.

They’ve also published suggestions for citizens, which include not over-mowing grassy areas next to backyards, growing native flowers, helping sunning snakes get off the road safely and not throwing gardening residue into uncultivated ditches or fields.

Bourgeois is also hoping the species will be designated as threatened or vulnerable by the Quebec government, which would lead to funding for conservation efforts and habitat protection.

Currently, it is on a list of species “of special concern” that is considered likely to be designated in the future.

While the biologists studying the snake have recommended it be added to the imperilled species list, Bourgeois acknowledged that change may not be coming any time soon, noting that the last time Quebec designated a species to the list was in 2009.

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