Province appears snake-bitten

Garters are persisting on the West Coast

Steve Bartlett
Published on October 9, 2012
Sightings of garter snakes in Newfoundland are increasing. — Submitted photo

The snakes on our plains? They may be here for good.The garter snakes first reported on the island’s southwest coast a few years ago seem to be settling and slithering in for the long haul.

“It sounds like right now they are persisting,” says Bruce Rodrigues, an ecologist with the provincial Department of Environment and Conservation.

“Perhaps they have a strong enough population to sustain them.”

Some people living in the St. David’s area of St. George’s Bay reported seeing garters in 2009.

In 2010, a pregnant snake was captured in the area and turned over to environment officials.

There have been more reports every year since, including one sighting 40 kilometres away from where they were first spotted.

The snakes could have arrived via an imported hay bale or with some other type of cargo.

It’s also possible the snakes were released in the area by mistake or on purpose.

Rodrigues points out there have been snake sightings on the island for years, but there were never enough snakes for a population to persist.

The recent mild winters may have changed that, he says.

“Snakes in the winter have to get below the frost line to survive. So we’ve had some milder winters, where the frost hasn’t been that deep and possibly has allowed them to persist. I guess if their population builds up to a high enough level, they can probably get over a very cold winter.”

Rodrigues says the while the population appears strong, the number of garters is likely low and there are too few to survey.

He asks the public to report garter snake sightings to his department so it can track the reptiles’ whereabouts and progress.

People shouldn’t be alarmed, Rodrigues says, because garters aren’t venomous to people.

“They do have some venom, but it’s just a very small dose. You’d have to have an allergic reaction to snakes to have any sort of effect from it.”

Put in bucket

But he warns these snakes, which can grow to a couple of feet in length, do have a defence mechanism, “where they actually smear you with a very foul-smelling substance.”

If one has to be removed from an area, he suggests using a stick to put it in a bucket.

While garters feed on a variety of common creatures — such as earth worms, frogs, ground nesting birds and rodents — Rodrigues notes there is a concern about one animal on its Newfoundland diet.

The meadow vole is the island’s only native small mammal.

“They live out in meadows, more of the open areas where you are more likely to find garter snakes. So they could potentially be feeling a little more pressure, predation pressure, from snakes.”

The Telegram contacted a number of people in the St. David’s area.

Each of them knew someone who had encountered a snake.

However, we were unable to connect with a person who had, in some way, been greeted by a garter.

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