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Misunderstood and maligned, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) is the only venomous snake in Ontario. With only 4 very isolated populations left, this rattlesnake is now protected under the Ontario Wildlife Conservation Act and the Ontario Endangered Species Act. 

Two primary reasons exist for the demise of this shy pit viper – persecution by humans and habitat loss. Shy and secretive by nature they prefer to hide from humans, and like other rattlesnakes, will give us fair warning of their presence by using their rattle. Few bites have occurred from this snake in Ontario and they are usually when the snake is handled or stepped on accidentally – especially when walking barefoot in rattlesnake territory. The unnecessary fear of this species causes inappropriate panic and often results in someone killing the snake. In areas where cottagers encounter rattlesnakes on their property there are volunteer efforts to relocate the animals, but it has been shown that they do not survive relocation as they will not over winter in unfamiliar areas.

Habitat loss is occurring at an alarming rate in the Massasauga’s range. Wetlands are drained and cleared for towns and roads even in our beautiful cottage areas around Georgian Bay and the Bruce Peninsula where populations of these snakes exist. As a result, road mortality is also an increasing factor in this animal’s demise.

Evolutionarily designed to effectively seek out, kill and devour rodents, the loss of rattlesnakes and other snakes in Ontario will propel rodent populations to a staggering level. Damage to crops, homes and the spread of disease will occur as a result. We can no longer afford to be ignorant of the importance of these animals in our ecosystems. If we continue to build homes and cottages in their territory then we need to adapt to their presence and protect them as a valuable asset to the biodiversity of the region. We are within striking distance of wiping out this species in Ontario. Let’s learn to back off and leave these snakes alone.

Many thanks to Ryan Bolton for the use of his photo as reference for this piece.
For more information on the Massasauga rattlesnake visit the recovery team site at: www.massasauga.ca