Ottawa Sun - Opponents of snake-protection rules smell a rat

Published on February 15th, 2012 in the Ottawa Sun

PERTH — Resistance against future “rat snake police” is already building in Lanark County even though new natural resources ministry habitat protection

While they willingly respect and protect gray or black rat snakes relatively common in the area, several local residents are writhing over proposed “draconian” regulations which they say would be counter-productive.

Given the potential impact on property owners, they contend even the most conservation-minded would hesitate to undertake proactive measures such as setting out snake egg-laying boxes, or piling brush to provide refuges.

“Landowners will need permission to mow lawns, remove dead trees, whippersnip, play badminton, replace structures, or park a vehicle,” said Bob Strachan, one of the residents forewarned by the ministry just before Christmas.

Considering the possible impact of the rules, owners are already becoming reluctant to admit they’ve seen a rat snake within a country mile for fear of restrictions on use of their properties.

Strachan warned some owners could go further and kill off snakes to avoid dealing with drastic measures “shotgunned” by MNR bureaucrats.

“Please stand back, put yourself in our position, and propose a practical solution,” he wrote to MNR species-at-risk biologist Glenn Desy.

Local politicians have waded into the controversy, with MPP Randy Hillier lashing out at the ministry for failing to provide “basic analysis and evidence” to support new habitat regulations.

“This is just another example of Toronto environmental bureaucrats imposing burdensome and costly regulations on the residents of rural Ontario,” Hillier said.

He’s backed by neighbouring MPP Steve Clark, who argued the government is pushing regulations over education even when it knows “its ridiculous rules are practically unenforceable.”

Tay Valley Twp. Deputy Reeve Susan Freeman said her municipality also disagrees with the proposed regulations, claiming they could bring development to a standstill in the area.

Perth businessman Jim Peden, who was told by the ministry his property is within 1,000 metres of a rat snake habitat, said that puts every property within the urban boundary in the same zone.

“Since upward of 500 building permits are issued per year, the world of development and renovation will be strangled in red tape,” he said.

John Willson, owner of a seasonal dwelling on 400 acres of bush and farmland in South Frontenac, wondered why he didn’t receive regulation notification from the ministry while his church in downtown Perth did. “I clearly have a great more at stake here than the church.”

Harmless but capable of reaching an intimidating six feet in length, the gray rat snake is a threatened reptile in Ontario, Desy told property owners in a notice.

Desy said regulations are being developed to protect the habitat of the species, including overwintering sites and creating natural and non-natural egg-laying sites, communal shedding and basking sites, and areas suitable for foraging, hibernation, reproduction and migration.

Desy said the rules won’t necessarily prohibit human activities as long as they don’t damage or destroy the habitat. He said examples of activities that could compromise habitat include construction, woodlot and hedgerow clearing, removing logs and compost piles, and eliminating old foundations and wells.

Landowners might be eligible for funding programs which recognize and encourage initiatives to protect the snake and its habitat.

If enacted, regulations would apply to known gray rat snake territory ranging from Kingston east to Brockville and north to Perth.

Strachan said he’s been part of the Friends of Murphy’s Point Provincial Park for 15 years, selling T-shirts to raise funds to help equip snakes with tracking chips and to buy “Brake for Snakes” road signs.

“What’s wrong with increasing education and awareness efforts and monitoring the results?” he asked Desy.