Yellow-bellied snakes hurt by flooding

Wet weather in Saskatchewan is creating trouble for a dwindling population of racer snakes.

Snakes on the Plains hurt by slumping soil

The eastern yellow-bellied racer is considered a threatened species of snake in Canada. ((Photo courtesy Laura Gardiner))

Wet weather in Saskatchewan is creating trouble for a dwindling population of racer snakes.

Their winter home, a den in the Grasslands National Park in the province's southwest, was hit with heavy rain last year and this spring, turning the site into a soggy and largely inhospitable mess.

The eastern yellow-bellied racer is the focus of study for University of Regina student Laura Gardiner.

"It looks like a big crater," Gardiner said, in describing the damage done to the snake pit. "The soil has just collapsed or slumped."

Gardiner said the damage is so severe some snakes were trapped in the pit and could not emerge from their winter hibernation.

Laura Gardiner has been studying the eastern yellow-bellied racer snake and its winter hibernation pit in the Grasslands National Park. (Photo courtesy Laura Gardiner)
To make matters worse, spring rains led to a second slump at the pit and those snakes that did manage to make it out will have difficulty finding an open route to take them below the frost line for this winter's hibernation.

Gardiner notes the den is home to a number of species of snakes, including racers and rattlesnakes.

"Eastern yellow-bellied racers are a threatened species already in Canada," she said. The Grasslands park had the largest known snake pit.

"What the slump has done is prevented the snakes from the coming out and likely caused death for some of those snakes," she said.

As part of her research, Gardiner has been tracking the snakes using micro-chip technology.

According to her calculations, in 2010 there were more than 300 racers at the Grasslands snake pit. The estimate for 2011 is about 150 snakes.

"It was a bit of a shocker," Gardiner said, in assessing the impact the slumps have had on the snakes. "These snakes are already threatened so it was a big blow to the biggest population we know of in Canada."

She said work is now underway to see if the eastern yellow-bellied racer has established itself elsewhere.

There have been unconfirmed sightings in the Cypress Hills.

"What we're trying to do is find out if they actually are as rare as we thought," Gardiner said. "And if they're not, then maybe this blow to the population at the snake pit wasn't as significant as we thought, hopefully."

It won't be an easy task, she said, explaining that the yellow-bellied racer is an elusive creature.

"They're hard to find," she said, but added that with the concern about the numbers, researchers will be looking harder than ever for the snake.