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Rare snakes found in Pemberton

Proposed Pemberton development area home to snakes on federal list of species at risk

There are snakes in them-thar Pemberton hills... and rare ones at that.

The sharp-tailed snake is a red-listed, federally endangered species, and 10 were found during a snake and lizard inventory around the village in 2012 and 2013.

The reptiles live on the long hillside of Mackenzie Ridge, a spot that has been slated for development projects by more than one developer.

Conservationists are asking for the spots the species have been found in on the ridge to be respected both by developers and by mountain bike and dirt bike riders, who have been accidently running snakes over in their trail network.

The red-coloured snake is small, with the adults no larger than a pencil, and so-named "sharp tailed" because it has a little spike on the edge of its tail, not unlike a rose thorn. It eats slugs and like other snakes in the region, it's not poisonous.

Dr. Leslie Anthony, a Whistler-based herpetologist and writer, found the sharp-tailed snake quite by accident in 2011. He said that over the last two years, the snake has been found at six "tiny, scattered" locations along five kilometres of Mackenzie Ridge.

He was in Pemberton looking for a rubber boa for a terrarium project for Whistler's Bioblitz annual species count when he came across a single sharp-tailed snake. It is a species that had never been recorded on the British Columbian mainland before.

"It was pretty shocking to me. The probability of someone with my training knowing what I was looking at, that was weird, too," he said. "This was a big deal in herpetological circles because this was a big range extension... Not only is it highly endangered; it is also very hard to find. It's like finding a hay-coloured needle in a haystack the size of a baseball stadium."

Anthony decided to learn all he could about the species and by 2012 he had gained a grant from Habitat Conservation Trust Fund to make an inventory of snakes and lizards on the ridge and other spots in Pemberton.

There are only "tiny windows in the spring and fall" when the species can be found on the surface, he said. The rest of the time it prefers being underground.

"It has been thought to have a very restricted distribution on the lower part of Vancouver Island in the Victoria area and on some of the Gulf Islands," Anthony said. "It is very habitat restricted in Canada, it only lives in environments that have the right heat and moisture regimens."

He brought a government-run recovery team for the sharp-tailed snake into the picture after he found more sharp-tailed snake sites in the spring of 2012. He then turned to Veronica Woodruff of the Pemberton Stewardship Society and the One Mile Lake Nature Centre.

"Finding an endangered species in Pemberton is of interest to the society, it certainly ups the biodiversity index of the region," Anthony said. "I showed (Woodruff) what I was doing, how I was finding these animals and I showed her all the other species that were there, too, and there were many. While they were not red-listed like the sharp-tailed snakes, some were blue-listed or had the threatened status."

This included the rubber boa (70 of this species were counted for the inventory), the only native constrictor in Canada, and the western toad. The den sites for both the sharp-tailed snake and the boa are found on the ridge, in fact five species of reptiles were found to be breeding there.

Woodruff told Anthony that the ridge where all these finds were being made was slated for a variety of development projects.

"It was like a perfect storm. You find an unbelievably rare, highly endangered species that's never been found in a place before and it just so happens to be in a place that's already far into the development process," Anthony said. "And the trail system is being continuously and surreptitiously expanded all the time and the best bike trails happen to be in the best snake habitat."

He added: "(Woodruff) was quite interested in seeing how she could get the community involved in trying to make sure this development didn't just bulldoze this area."

In a presentation to a Pemberton council meeting on July 23, Woodruff explained the reptile inventory and answered questions.

She explained that she met with an American expert on the sharp-tailed snake during a gathering of the Association of Vertebrate Biologists in Squamish earlier this year.

"He said they are more widespread than previously believed, which is common with a rare species when you really try to look for it," said Woodruff.

"He's found them in fields and crossing roads at night. He found their preferred habitat is southwest-facing slopes, rocky areas where there's been rock fall... they spend most of their lives underground. The depth of the substrate is really important and open areas... they are more associated with dry areas as long as that substrate exists."

She told council that the current hot, dry weather meant the snakes would be far underground at the moment.

When asked by acting Mayor James Linklater what they would like developers to do, Woodruff said: "We know the preferred types of habitats for these snakes. It's literally an exercise in Google Earth to find the good spot, to see if that depth of substrate exists there by picking up a couple of rocks... if that is an area slated for development then pull it apart and see what is there or consider leaving that area and moving, tweaking that development.

"You're not talking about hillside protection, you're talking about a 25-m square lifetime range."

In an interview, Woodruff said she thought the snakes "were a really great find for Pemberton."

She added: "If you look at a lot of rare species in the south coast of British Columbia, they are found in a lot of areas that are already developed. Here is Pemberton, if you look at that hillside there are certainly large development pressures there. We have this opportunity to take the information that we have right now and try and shape that development to be the best it can be in terms of species and their interactions with people."

She added that local government is dependent on the reports submitted for environmental assessments by developers, saying, "their hands are tied when they have a professional paper saying 'that in my opinion there will be no effects.'"

Nyal Wilcox, vice president of the Sunstone Ridge development was at the same Pemberton meeting as Woodruff's presentation.

"We see Pemberton as a great community to participate in. We've got various projects well into the planning stage (on Mackenzie Ridge), some we're able to discuss and some not," Wilcox said in an interview."

He said projects around the community included the recently purchased Meadows Golf Course; residential development plans on the ridge itself and Hill Academy.

Wilcox said they were "deep in the consultation process for the residential project," including the best possible use of the land, with architects, landscape architects and others, but he was not currently in the position to say more about it.

"There was a claim of a sighting of a sharp-tailed snake a year ago and we checked out the site using GPS and it was one kilometre away from our site," he said.

"We called in our environmental consultant to look and she decided the landscape was too dry and not normal terrain for the snake, without its normal food, which is slugs. That was the initial assessment, (that) the food was not there."

In terms of the environmental assessment process they conducted, Wilcox added: "We hired a very reputable environmental consultancy firm to help us with our assessment process to date. In light of this report about the snakes that I haven't read yet, we will be reassessing the possible impact on our development plan."

Wilcox said he had not specifically spoken to the Village of Pemberton since Woodruff's presentation and would first prefer to see the report and identify the location of the sightings.

"If they truly are in the valley, it won't just impact us, it will impact the whole valley," he said.