Scales Nature Park, near Orillia, works with a variety of partners to conserve wild reptiles and amphibians through education, research, and conservation activities. In 2021, Scales received $100,000 of Ganawenim Meshkiki’s Eastern Georgian Bay Initiative (EGBI) funding to further their conservation efforts of eastern Ontario SAR reptiles, which include: Massasauga rattlesnake, Eastern foxsnake, Eastern hog-nosed snake, Blanding’s turtle, and Eastern musk turtle. Project efforts in 2021 included field conservation and community engagement activities to support two conservation programs:
- Conservation, Action, Research and Education about Snakes (CARES), and
- Saving Turtles at Risk Today (START).
The CARES project was launched last year using 2020 funding support from the EGBI. CARES focuses on the conservation of SAR snakes in the eastern Georgian Bay region, primarily through efforts to address road mortality and habitat loss, fill knowledge gaps, and decrease persecution of the Massasauga rattlesnake, Eastern hog-nosed snake, and to a lesser extent, the Eastern foxsnake. The START project, which focuses on turtles, began in Muskoka in 2013 and has since widened in scope to include all of Central Ontario. Activities include efforts to prevent road mortality and reduce subsidized predation, report SAR observations in support of habitat protection, estimate population sizes of local turtle species, identify nesting and road crossing hotspots, reduce collection for food and pet trades, train and engage volunteers and increase public knowledge and awareness on related conservation issues. Both projects work in tandem, with the START project leveraging its significant funding and resources for SAR turtles to create more conservation efforts that also benefits SAR snake and other wildlife in the region.
2021 marked Year 2 of the CARES project and despite the difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the project was highly successful in documenting and assessing species observations and other information related to habitat connectivity, road mortality, identification of hibernacula/gestation sites, and more. Both projects, CARES and START, were supported by numerous community partners and collaboration and support is only anticipated to grow in the future. Key highlights achieved by the projects in 2021 included the following:
- Educational programming: staff began conducting virtual conservation programming for schools in the Georgian Bay watershed,
- Community engagement: the START project hotline, which allows members of the public to report encounters with ‘rare, nesting, dead, or injured’ turtles in the study area, received 828 calls/texts,
- SAR monitoring: 4,065 observations of 10 different SAR were observed, recorded, and this data was shared with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s Natural Heritage Information Centre,
- Capacity building: 33 volunteers were trained in how to identify, handle, and help turtle species identified along roadsides. Community members were also trained in how to identify SAR snakes and to report their sightings to the hotline, and
- Habitat protection: extensive efforts to map all threatened and endangered herpetofauna encounters for the 2021 season was completed, which involved mapping 669km2of new protected area under the Endangered Species Act.
Together, the Scales team and collaborators continued and expanded both the CARES and START programs in 2021. They hope to continue and improve upon their successes in the coming years, to slow or reverse SAR population declines through threat mitigation, habitat protection, boosting recruitment, and public education in the Eastern and Central Ontario region.