A few encounters with garter snakes has left a Stettler resident with a different understanding of their role in the environment.
“Some snakes had decided that my outside steps were a good pace to hibernate and evidently have been doing this for quite some time,” explained Penny Tash. “So when they started appearing this spring I was completely ‘freaked out’ and wanted them gone and done away with.
“Since then, I have been in touch with a lady from Wildlife Rescue who has educated me and told me how I can discourage the snakes from living under my steps and she also explained their life cycle and their value to the environment,” said Tash. “It is important not to kill them.
“There are people who will come and get them and deliver them to a safe location,” she said, adding that for more information about this, local residents can contact the Town office or they can call Tash directly about her experience at 403-742-4788.
According to Gwen Marshall, a wildlife specialist with the Medicine River Wildlife Centre, there are three garter snake species here in Alberta.
These consist of the Plains garter which has a bright orange down the middle of its back and mottled sides, the Red-Side garter which has a pale yellow stripe down the middle of its back and small red markings on the skin of its sides, and the Wandering garter which has a pale greyish brown back with little dark brown or black spots running down it.
Marshall explained that it’s during early to mid-April that the garter snakes wake up from hibernation and start appearing in groups near the entrance of their dens.
“These dens can contain hundreds of snakes in some well-established areas, though it is more common for there to be 10 to 30 snakes at any one location,” she said. On warms days, they will tend to go outside to enjoy the sun and form ‘mating’ balls with the males clustered around a female.
After this, they will often linger around the den for a few days, and then head into the countryside if the weather is agreeable, she said.
In the fall, the snakes start to head back to their dens. “They can travel as far as 30 km to return to their ‘hibernaculum’ of choice.
“Because hibernaculum sites are so important to garter snakes when it comes to surviving the winter, they are protected by law,” she said, adding that garters are listed as a protected species in Alberta and may not be harmed, possessed or killed.
“If a hibernaculum is in an inappropriate location, organizations such as the Medicine River Wildlife Centre or Alberta Fish and Wildlife may be contacted to assist.”
Marshall also pointed out that garter snakes are a valuable ‘indicator’ species as their presence and numbers show that the environment is healthy. They take care of a number of pests, too.
“They also prey upon small fishes and amphibians, worms, slugs, snails and for the larger snakes – small rodents.
“They are harmless to humans, and when confronted prefer to flee if at all possible,” she explained. “If grabbed, they excrete a foul smelling musk to try and convince the predator or human to let them go. Very rarely do they try to bite, and bites can only barely break human skin.”
Marshall said garter snake numbers have been going down for a number of years due to a number of environmental pressures. “But they are creatures worth protecting and admiring,” she said. “These small snakes just want to go about their lives, and with a bit of compassion we can all co-exist.”
Tash agreed, noting that there is a ditch behind her home which appears to be an attraction for the snakes.
“I’m trying to make people aware of the fact that they shouldn’t be killed, and that there are people who will come and get them,” she said.
“I’m also trying to make people aware that they are protected. I feel that people in town should know that,” she said, noting that many folks tend to panic when they see a snake, but garters, as mentioned, are harmless and have a positive impact on the environment. “Those are the two big things.”
To discourage the snakes from being near her home, she was instructed to get rid of tunnels under a planter that have been dug by moles and utilized by the snakes.
A bit of lining the area with wire will help, too. Not that Tash is afraid of the snakes. “I don’t like to be surprised by them but I’m not scared of snakes. I’ve held them – when I was in Australia there was a picture taken of me with a great big snake over my shoulders,” she recalled. “It didn’t bother me.
“Once you understand (them), you have a completely different feeling about them, too.”