On Pelee Island, discussing the blue racer doesn’t make for appropriate dinner conversation.
To call the snake controversial would be putting it mildly. The endangered reptile has been at the heart of property disputes on the small Lake Erie island — its only remaining Ontario habitat — for decades. Its presence, and the regulations that protect the species, have divided the island population.
The blue racer shares the 42-square-kilometre island with nearly 200 residents who live there year-round. Any developer hoping to build on Pelee Island has to demonstrate the impact their project would have on the endangered snake in order to comply with provincial environment ministry rules. A snake sighting can pause development or freeze it entirely — and that’s a problem for a community striving to grow its tourism industry.
“We're very conscious of how important [blue racers] are to our community, but it creates huge hurdles when it comes to development,” says Rick Masse, mayor of the Township of Pelee. “The hurdles are so high that [visitors] give up on trying to build a cottage here or do something here.”
The blue racer is named for its metallic blue-grey scales and its incredible speed — it’s capable of slithering up to seven kilometres per hour, making it one of the fastest snakes in Ontario. The snakes travel great distances, which means they tend to occupy vast ranges, according to Ben Porchuk, a biologist who was involved in a recovery project on Pelee Island in the 1990s.
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Primary threats to the species include habitat loss and road mortality — a lethal duo that affects many of the 237 species on the province’s at-risk list. The blue racer once also lived along the north shore of Lake Erie, but it hasn’t been spotted on mainland Ontario since 1983.
Historically its presence has been a flashpoint for islanders looking to bolster Pelee’s economy through development. When Porchuk worked on the island, he bought some acreage and converted it into blue racer habitat. But he faced pushback from residents who opposed his work.
“A number of the grants that we got to do habitat restoration and to monitor the species were brought into question by a vocal minority of people that were against the work we were doing,” he says. “It became more and more difficult to live there and do work.”
Eventually the complaints and acrimony became too much. “There was quite a bit of vandalism that had happened to my things,” he says. “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.”
When islanders try to work with the environment ministry, Masse says, they feel as if they’re dealing with a distant organization that doesn’t understand their community: “They're trying to regulate it and it puts everybody's hair up on the backs of their necks because of it.”
That tension makes it difficult for researchers to get permission to study the species. Scientist Jacqueline Litzgus tried in 2013. She had funding for a three-year study, a research team lined up, and a plan — but she wanted the community’s buy-in.
“I didn't have to go to them. I didn't have to have their vote. But I wanted to because I didn't want to make a problem, I didn't want it to be a difficult situation,” Litzgus says. “If we did just go and do the work … they might be defensive again.”
The islanders voted against the project. For Litzgus, the experience highlighted the importance of consultation in working with endangered species. From a biologist’s perspective, she says, the work may seem simple: preserve habitat, remove threats to the species. But those objectives can clash with residents’ day-to-day lives.
Masse says the islanders’ relationship with the province has improved — the government is starting to understand their situation.
“Our land mass is finite,” says Masse. “I think we've done our part as Canadian citizens and Ontario residents as far as contributing to saving as many endangered species as possible. That being 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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