Over the years, Killbear has partnered with numerous educational institutions to learn more about the species that it protects - which in turn helps to protect these species wherever they are found.
Massasauga Rattlesnake Research
Research on Killbear's Massasauga Rattlesnakes began in 1992 with a modest mark/recapture program. With both research and education began a new era of park visitor perception of this snake - one from hostility towards it to helpfulness in protecting it.
Over the next ten years, a research team tracked a total of 37 rattlesnakes and identified hundreds of others. Their research gave valuable insight on how to best protect rattlesnakes - management measures like relocating rattlesnakes only a few hundred metres to ensure they remain within their own ranges and where to locate ecopassages to reduce road mortality.
In 2005, park staff noticed a dramatic spike in the number of rattlesnakes killed on park roads. In response, the park installed kilometres of fences and 4 ecopassages between 2007 and 2012 to try to reduce the number of snakes killed on the road. The fences prevent rattlesnakes from attempting risky crossings, while ecopassages allow them to safely cross under the road.
Effectiveness of Ecopassages Research
From 2013-2015, the Friends of Killbear with the assistance of an Ontario Species at Risk Stewardship grant, sponsored intensive research into the threatened Massasauga rattlesnake at Killbear. With the Friends’ support, Mike Colley, a M.Sc. candidate from Laurentian University, studied the snake fences and ecopassages to determine if they work.
We are happy to report that the fences seem to be keeping most rattlesnakes off the road and that rattlesnakes are using the ecopassages. Additionally, many other animals use the ecopassages, including other snake species, frogs, toads and salamanders, as well as mammals such as fox, fisher, raccoons, chipmunks and porcupines.
Unfortunately, there is some bad news to report as well. We already knew that Killbear has two populations of rattlesnakes that rarely mix. One of these populations is fairly stable; however, we are increasingly concerned about the second population. Mike ran some computer models which predicted that one of our populations will go extinct if it continues to lose 3 adult females per year to road kill. While the road kill numbers now are not that high, the number of snake deaths in 2005 and 2006 might have been enough to severely harm this population. We are quite certain that if we had not installed the snake fences, that this subpopulation would have been doomed. More study is needed to determine if the fences will allow this population to recover.
Mike also found another danger zone for reptiles along the main road where the park should install more fencing and another ecopassage. This location is along the wetland beside the Lookout Point trail parking lot. While not many rattlesnakes have been killed along this section of road, many gartersnakes and water-snakes have perished there. In addition, snapping turtles, Blanding’s turtles and painted turtles have been found alive in this area. Snapping turtles and Blanding’s turtles are both species at risk which need extra protection. Although watersnakes, gartersnakes and painted turtles are not species at risk, the park needs to protect these common species as well to ensure they remain common.