Nolan Hiebert shows off his new cold-blooded friend with a grin to anyone nearby who wants a closer look.
“Scaly … it feels cool,” the five-year-old says, snake in hand, next to a rocky sinkhole writhing with slithery activity.
It’s a first for Hiebert on this wet May day at the Narcisse snake dens in Manitoba’s Interlake region, about 100 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
Tourists and school buses full of students have come to see the globally significant spring emergence of red-sided garter snakes.
In true spring fashion, hundreds of the snakes have sprung forth from their winter hideouts in cracks and caves in limestone bedrock to get fresh in orgasmic mating balls.
The Narcisse wildlife management area, made up of four main den sites, is known as perhaps the largest concentration of snakes on the planet.
But there’s a possible problem with that long held claim: the Manitoba government doesn’t have a firm grasp on how many snakes call Narcisse home today.
A spokesperson couldn’t provide CBC News with population size estimates over time because “the province does not have a scientific monitoring program” for the globally significant site.
“It’s been a thorn in my side for years,” said retired biologist Doug Collicutt.
“It just seems to be taken for granted by our provincial government and they don’t want to be bothered.”
The province declined a request to interview the government wildlife biologist in charge of the site, and would not provide another biologist to speak generally about Narcisse.
The lure of the snakes
Collicutt previously ran the Manitoba Herps Atlas, a citizen science project that asked the general public to log reptiles and amphibian sightings through an online database.
He said he’s also been advocating for “proper monitoring, population biology and basic natural history” research on snakes at Narcisse for close to two decades.
Colicutt says that kind of information is crucial to protecting the snakes.
“I always use the phrase … you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. If you can make people know what they’ve got, they won’t let it become gone, I hope.”
Collicutt suggested the site isn’t given the resources it warrants from government partly because of successive cuts to the conservation department budget.
“I’ve dealt with people working for the department for years and they’re more frustrated than I am with the system,” he said. “Unfortunately in Manitoba if it’s not something you can hook, shoot or skin, they don’t tend to take much interest in it from a government policy level.”
It is of interest on a tourism level. The province posts snake den activity updates online for people planning trips.
Visitors are invited to pick up snakes in the presence of Manitoba government interpreters that are on site each spring and fall when the snakes emerge and return.
International scientists have conducted many studies in and around Narcisse. Foundational work in the area demonstrated how female snakes emit a come-hither chemical cocktail of pheromones that draw males in like a tractor beam.
National Geographic, the New York Times and BBC Earth have all covered the spectacle over the past decade, some reporting population sizes in the 70,000 range.
Reports of declining numbers
But pinning down those numbers is a slippery proposition.
A biologist with Manitoba’s department of natural resources told CBC News in 1999 there were about 65,000 snakes in the dens based on a mark-recapture study done the year before.
The following year biologists entered dens and found as many as 5,000 dead from what they suspected were natural causes.
Gary Chikousky, a Narcisse snake den interpreter for 20 years off and on, can only guess at the health of the population now.
In 2022, floods made for lower numbers and poorer viewing opportunities at Narcisse. Several years of droughts on the Prairies, which scientists linked to climate change, also “had a negative impact” on numbers, said Chikousky.
He said though not as numerous as some years, anecdotally there seemed to be more this spring than in recent years.
At peak activity, Chikousky counted about 1,000 snakes at Den 2, 750 at Den 3 and 400 at Den 4, he said on May 17.
“We’ve been seeing diminishing numbers here for probably the past seven years, maybe a bit longer, each year there’s been fewer snakes,” he said.
“This is the first year I’ve seen a bit of an increase in the population, and we’re hopeful that it’s a trend.”
The province’s website suggests there are still “tens of thousands” of snakes living on site.
“Manitoba does not measure the size of the snake population at the Narcisse dens and is not aware of such data being collected by other researchers,” a provincial spokesperson said.
“So, no assessment is available of what, if any, impact drought conditions and flooding may have had on the snake population of the area.”
Monitoring by the people?
A challenge of conservation monitoring generally in the province is that it would take about 1.5 biologists per at-risk species for effective recovery management, said James Duncan.
“We just don’t have 90 biologists in our back pocket,” said Duncan, who served as director of Manitoba’s fish and wildlife branch before retiring a few years ago.
“There’s great potential for a citizen science project [at Narcisse]. Often those projects need some kind of a spark plug, a human being or a group of humans who really have a passion and dedication to to nurturing that type of a monitoring program.”
Narcisse is “probably one of the most underappreciated natural … wonders of Manitoba,” he said.
But given resources are finite, he said, monitoring population health across a variety of known garter snake den sites in Manitoba over time is more important than focusing on a single area such as Narcisse.
Duncan said there was a time a decade or more ago when Manitoba convened a committee to look for ways to monitor Narcisse snake activity.
They considered erecting a tower with cameras to enable live stream monitoring so the public could check remotely before driving out on a dull day and being disappointed.
That was deemed too costly, said Duncan. But now, WiFi-capable trail cameras come cheap.
Duncan suggested it could be possible to set up a camera system at dens for a few thousand dollars to gather video of snakes that could also be leveraged for scientific or citizen science monitoring purposes.
“If it is important to people, then they should write to their elected officials saying, ‘I think more should be done here,’” said Duncan.
Video editing by Warren Kay | Edited by Lisa Johnson