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Snake Eyes

The emergence of thousands of garter snakes in Narcisse is a globally significant natural phenomenon — yet the Manitoba government isn’t watching too closely.

A veritable carpet of red-sided garter snakes slither around during the spring emergence at the Narcisse, Man., snake dens.Doug Collicutt/

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.

A little boy holds up a snake
Nolan Hiebert, 5, holds up a red-sided garter snake — the first such snake he's ever held — during a trip to the dens on May 17. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

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

Red-side garter snakes emerge from cracks and caves in Manitoba's Interlake region every spring. They form mating balls, and once the deed is done disperse into the woods to chow down on frogs, worms and more for the summer. They return to the caves in the fall to overwinter underground.

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.”

Hundreds of snakes pile up on each other during mating season
A clump of hundreds of red-sided garter snakes emerge from den site three at Narcisse to mate in the spring of 2023. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

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.

A sign of a large snake is seen outside a wildlife management area.
Visitors arriving at the Narcisse wildlife management area and snake dens are greeted by a large garter snake sign as they drive into the parking lot.
A park interpreter is seen standing next to a trail
Narcisse interpreter Gary Chikousky said there are two main reasons why Narcisse is home to the greatest concentration of snakes in the world. For one, the 'massive' system of cracks and caves underground in the limestone bedrock gives the snakes lots of space to get below the frost line to survive the winter. The second reason relates to the abundance of prey species that live in surrounding wetlands in the summer, he says. They mostly eat aquatic insects, frogs, tadpoles, earthworms and sometimes rodents.
A park interpretive sign invites visitors to a wildlife management area to handle snakes, but to avoid disturbing mating balls that contain dozens or more snakes in the midst of breeding and courtship behaviour.
A park interpretive sign invites visitors to handle snakes with care, but to avoid disturbing mating balls that contain dozens or more in the middle of the act.
A person holds up a garter snake in their hand
Garter snakes do not have fangs. They aren't venomous and are considered harmless.
images expandThe Narcisse wildlife management area has seen thousands of tourists over the years from around the world, greeted by interpreters including Gary Chikousky, top left. There have been numerous studies published based on research at Narcisse dens and other dens over the course of decades. Much of that work has been done by international scientists.

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.”

Three garter snakes hang out on a log.
Three garter snakes hang out on a log in the base of a den site at Narcisse. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

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.

A high school student says it was a once in a life time experience getting to hold a snake at Narcisse, Manitoba.
'It's actually amazing being present here to watch the snakes,' says Cristobal Iribarren, 17, an international student from Chile, South America. He got to hold a snake for the first time while at Narcisse in May on a field trip with his sustainable wilderness classmates at St. James Collegiate. 'Don't be afraid. Just got for it and hold it, it's really fun. It's a one time in a life experience.'
A man takes a selfie next to a depression in the woods full of snakes.
Doug Collicutt poses next to a depression full of red-sided garter snakes. Collicutt advocated for more protections and tracking of snakes at the Narcisse snake dens. He also believes the public, museums and local post-secondary institutions should get more involved there in science and citizen science monitoring projects.
An aerial view over den site three at the Narcisse snake dens.
An aerial view shows how the hiking trail network at Narcisse winds to Den 3, which was among the most active of the four den sites on May 17. From an observation deck, visitors can observe scores of snakes tangled up at the base of the den. The snakes are also often found throughout other parts of the wildlife management area.
A high school physical education and sustainable wilderness instructor talks about the value of exposing young people to nature.
Ashley Van Aggelen is the physical education department head at St. James Collegiate in Winnipeg. On May 17, she took teens to Narcisse for a sustainable wilderness class, otherwise known as outdoor ed. She said exposing young people to sites like Narcisse helps them develop a stronger connection to nature and the outdoors.
images expandNarcisse has long been a favourite site for school trips because of the unparalleled access to wildlife that it provides to teachers and students. 'It's actually amazing being present here to watch the snakes,' says Cristobal Iribarren, 17, top left, an international student from Chile, South America, who got to hold a snake for the first time. Also pictured are retired biologist Doug Collicutt, top right, and teacher Ashley Van Aggelen of St. James Collegiate in Winnipeg, bottom right.

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.

A baby looks closely at a garter snake.
A baby takes a close look at a garter snake held out by a loved one near Den 3. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Video editing by Warren Kay | Edited by Lisa Johnson

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