Western Newfoundland may be a new habitat for garter snakes: wildlife biologist

Gary Kean gkean@thewesternstar.com
Published on October 3, 2010
This pregnant garter snake was found on private property in St. David’s this summer and is believed to be evidence the reptiles may be inhabiting Newfoundland.

CORNER BROOK One live specimen and sufficient anecdotal evidence has convinced provincial wildlife officials that there are now snakes in western Newfoundland.

The possibility first reared its head in 2009 with reports of people living in the area of St. George’s Bay between Robinsons and Maidstone having found snakes in their gardens.

One report consisted of someone bringing a baby snake they had found to a pet store in Stephenville, but that snake died and its remains were never forwarded to wildlife officials.

Now, the Department of Environment and Conservation does have a pregnant garter snake found in the same area in its possession.

The snake, which measures around two feet long, was recently collected from a flower garden in St. David’s and passed in to the forestry office in St. George’s. It is currently being kept at the Salmonier Nature Park on the province’s east coast.

“We talked to the person in St. David’s and found out there were at least two or three other people in the area who had spotted snakes,” Bruce Rodriguez, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Environment and Conservation in Corner Brook, said Friday.

“We think this is enough to confirm there are snakes, at least in this smaller area.”

Rodriguez said the snake in captivity is likely from the same species of garter snake which inhabits the southern shores of Nova Scotia.

He cannot say whether the reptile has been introduced to the area inadvertently or on purpose. The snakes may have been released in the area by pet owners who no longer wanted to keep them or could have arrived hidden among cargo shipped to the island from the mainland.

In the past, instances of non-native species such as snapping turtles, likely discarded by a pet owner, and a raccoon, which likely arrived on a transport trailer, have been reported in Newfoundland.

Rodriguez doesn’t know if the snakes will proliferate in Newfoundland, but said it is quite possible since they do live in cold climates all across Canada.

“Time will tell,” he said. “It depends on how long this population has been here already, which we haven’t determined. If it’s been here for, say, 10 years and is only in that one area, maybe it won’t proliferate. Or maybe, if weather conditions are good, it could take off.”

If their introduction is more recent, added Rodriguez, garter snakes do produce a lot of young and they could disperse throughout the province.

Given the island has a low density of species garter snakes would prey on, Rodriguez said the big concern is they might begin to out-compete native species which consume the same food. Garter snakes do have a broad diet and will eat earthworms, rodents, frogs, birds, bird eggs and little fish.

There were attempts to find more snakes in the St. George’s Bay area this summer, but none were caught. Rodriguez encouraged anyone who finds a snake to contact their local wildlife office.