TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — A nonpoisonous snake that slithers among a patchwork of islands in western Lake Erie has been removed from the federal government's list of endangered and threatened species following a successful recovery campaign, officials said Monday.
The Lake Erie watersnake population had declined to about 1,500 adults by the mid-1990s because of human persecution and habitat loss from shoreline development. Federal and state agencies designated 300 acres of inland habitat and 11 miles of shoreline as breeding and hibernation grounds, while scientists led a public relations blitz to convince people the snake was nothing to fear.
The effort quickly paid off. By 2002, the snake had reached the government's minimum goal of 5,555 snakes. A census in 2009 estimated the population at nearly 12,000.
"Today the Lake Erie watersnake joins species such as the bald eagle, the American alligator and the peregrine falcon that have rebounded from the threat of extinction and no longer require the protection of the Endangered Species Act," U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.
The snake is the 23rd species to be removed from the federal endangered and threatened list after recovering. Critics frequently complain the process takes too long, but defenders say it works as intended.
"Protections under this landmark law have been essential in reversing the trend toward extinction for so many of our nation's most imperiled species of wildlife and plants," said Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Killing the Lake Erie watersnake remains illegal because the state of Ohio still lists it as endangered, as does the Canadian province of Ontario. Some of the islands where the snakes live are in Canadian territory.
The olive-grayish snakes are 1½ to 3½ feet long when fully grown. Some have band-like markings. They hibernate underground during the winter and in summers are found on the islands' cliffs, ledges and rock-strewn shorelines.
They previously fed on native fish such as madtom and spottail shiners. But the invasion of Lake Erie by the round goby in the 1990s provided an abundant new food source. The goby, which hitchhiked to the Great Lakes from central Europe in ballast tanks of cargo ships, now accounts for about 90 percent of the snake's diet.
Exotic species generally are regarded as harmful to ecosystems they invade. The round goby has caused a number of native Great Lakes fish to decline. But it arrived just in time for the watersnake.
"This is an ironic example of where an invasive species actually helps fuel the recovery of an endangered native species," said Kristin Stanford, a Northern Illinois University researcher who also works for Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory on Lake Erie's Gibraltar Island. "Within the past decade, watersnakes are now growing faster, bigger, with more offspring and a higher survival rate."
Stanford became known as "the island snake lady" as a member of the team of biologists who developed the recovery plan for the watersnakes. She has spent years catching and studying them — a task for which she was featured on the Discovery Channel program "Dirty Jobs."
She and colleagues traveled the region speaking to school classes and community groups to improve the watersnake's reputation.
"It's exciting that we've reached the point where the snakes are doing so well that we can officially announce their recovery," Stanford said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources will monitor the snakes to make sure their numbers remain at safe levels.