Feds make Oak Creek a ‘critical’ snake habitat

When a bunch of Arizona Conservation Corps staff have been performing path upkeep in higher Oak Creek Canyon final month, they stumbled on a uncommon sight subsequent to an unofficial path: 5 olive grey snakes with faint reddish spots intertwined in courtship.

In a mobile phone video of the menage-a-trois — or on this case menage-a-cinq — somebody wonders out loud, “What are they doing?”

“I’d never seen anything like it before,” AZCC Crew Chief Hannah Greene, stated. Nonetheless, earlier than commencing the Oak Creek Canyon challenge, AZCC crews had acquired coaching from Northern Arizona College biologist Erika Nowak, so the employees suspected it was a narrow-headed gartersnake — one of many oddest branches within the gartersnake household.

After they shared the photographs and video with Nowak, the biologist confirmed the identification. The sighting was a rarity on prime of rarity: The species is present in only some streams within the Southwest and the courtship conduct noticed will not be effectively documented by science. Actually, Nowak stated she is getting ready a peer-reviewed article on the conduct noticed by the staff.

Coincidently, shortly earlier than the crew’s sighting, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formally designated stretches of higher Oak Creek and the higher Verde River as vital habitat for the narrow-headed gartersnake. The vital behavior alongside Oak Creek runs from the switchbacks all the way down to Decrease Pink Rock Loop Highway.

Oak Creek Canyon is one among simply 5 or fewer locations with a “viable” popula­tion of the threatened snake, based on researchers in a FWS report.

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The significance of enhanced protections for this menace­ened species was underscored by the unhappy sequel to the crew’s uncommon sighting: When staff returned to the identical sport 4 hours later, the group of gartersnakes was gone, and one snake lay lifeless on the path. Greene isn’t certain what occurred, however she stated the snake appeared to have been trampled. Nowak later collected the snake for research.

“It was hard to see this endangered snake [dead] we had seen just a few hours before.”

Distinctive Place, Distinctive Animal

The narrow-headed gardersnake is a product of its habitat. It makes a speciality of catching fish in chilly, fast-flowing streams minimize into the Mogollon Rim in Arizona and New Mexico. The vary of the narrow-headed gartersnake has shrunk in current a long time, limiting its vary to some remoted mountain streams separated by scores or a whole bunch of miles.

Slender-headed gartersnake. File photograph/Larson Newspapers

Not like different gartersnakes, the narrow-headed garter­snake spends most of its time in or near water, besides when it strikes away from the water to hibernate throughout winter. It took genetic checks to substantiate the narrow-headed is definitely a gartersnake and never a water snake.

Oak Creek Canyon is such an vital stronghold for the remaining narrow-headed gartersnake popula­tion, that when the Slide Fireplace broke out within the canyon in 2014, biologists led by Nowak carried out a rescue mission to gather as many snakes as potential. The aim was to gather sufficient people to ascertain a breeding and reintroduction program, in case the fireplace or its aftermath worn out Oak Creek Canyon’s narrow-headed garter snakes. The habitat injury from the Slide Fireplace ended up being lower than biologists had feared.

The continuing threats to the narrow-headed gartersnake embrace the lack of native fish, that are an vital meals supply, lack of habitat from reductions in stream circulation, and the introduction of invasive species that prey straight on the snake or displace the native fish that the snake is dependent upon.

Individuals may pose a menace to the snakes.

“Being snakes, they are also threatened because people have ophidiophobia [fear of snakes],” Nowak stated. “That is, people are afraid of snakes and kill them. We have seen recent examples of people killing these snakes in Oak Creek, so it’s important to get the word out that these snakes are not dangerous to people or pets and need our help to survive.”

The official designation of components of Oak Creek and the Verde River as vital habitat signifies that federal companies should seek the advice of with the Fish and Wildlife Service earlier than approving initiatives or issuing permits inside the habitat. The FWS will consider the proposals to make sure they don’t “adversely modify” the behavior of the narrow-headed gartersnake.

Essential habitat designa­tions don’t have an effect on non-public land “if there is no federal ‘nexus’ — that is, no federal funding or permits required to carry out the activity,” based on a FWS web site.

Nowak stated she was glad to see the vital habitat designation was finalized and included areas away from the creek the place the snakes hibernate, which her analysis confirmed was vital to their survival

“However, I am not sure that the final acreage designated as ‘critical’ is sufficient for species recovery,” Nowak wrote in an electronic mail, “as a result of the designation was very narrowly restricted to areas that have been occupied by the snakes between 1998 and 2019.

“This designation of critical habitat doesn’t allow for the possibility of discovery of new populations in habitat we know is suitable (and these new discoveries are still occurring!), nor for the rediscovery of populations thought to be extinct. In some areas this narrow designation doesn’t allow for natural range expansion into formerly occupied habitat.”

Nowak stated defending the narrow-headed gartersnake is vital as a result of its well being is a mirrored image of the canyon’s well being.

“They are the reptilian ‘canaries in the coal mine’ for the health of higher elevation streams in Arizona and New Mexico. Their decline follows the decline and extinction of many species of native fish that the snakes rely on for prey, and this indicates that the health of these streams is imperiled.”

The Middle for Organic Range environmental group praised the official designation in an Oct. 20 press launch.

“Protecting these rivers will make a real difference for the narrow-headed garter snake,” Brian Segee, CBD’s endangered species authorized director, wrote within the launch. “The only way to save these river-dwelling snakes is to shield the places they live.”

Artmotion U.S.A U.S.A

Arizona News (Sedona)

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