Snakes vs. firefighters — in Windsor, a win for both

09042016aSnakes vs. firefighters — in Windsor, a win for both

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A Butler’s Gartersnake is pictured in this handout photo. Courtesy of Kristen Martyn / Windsor Star

In a battle between preserving rare habitat for an endangered snake and building a new Windsor fire hall, both sides can now declare victory. But it took two years of negotiations between the municipality and the province, and it will be more than another year before a new fire hall first announced in early 2014 finally gets built. “It’s a really sweet little snake and very beneficial — they eat a lot of the bugs and pesky things people don’t like,” city naturalist Karen Cedar said of the Butler’s Gartersnake. The non-venomous Butler’s Gartersnake is an endangered species, and Windsor is one of the last places the legless reptile still calls home in Canada. Under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, whenever one of the snake’s homes is discovered, it triggers mandatory protective measures. In order to build a new Fire Hall No. 5 at the corner of Northwood Street and Daytona Avenue — part of an ambitious citywide reorganization plan for fire response that was announced in December 2013 — Windsor Fire & Rescue Services has agreed to learn to live with snakes in their midst.

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The site of a new firehall is seen on Daytona Avenue in Windsor on Thursday, March 31, 2016. Construction of the firehall has been delayed due to an endangered snake on the site. Tyler Brownbridge / Windsor Star

The Butler’s Gartersnake doesn’t actually live on the property designated for the new fire hall, it was discovered in an adjoining vacant lot. But just being a neighbour that sometimes visits to hunt for food is enough for required mitigation measures. A snake exclusion fence made of fine wire mesh will be erected along part of the property housing the new fire hall, and the landscaping will retain a naturalized, open-meadow look with some of the kinds of depressions in the ground that this snake loves. Cedar said firefighters deployed to No. 5 will be given special instructions, “so they know they’re surrounded by an endangered species and they keep their eyes open.” Cedar said Butler’s Gartersnake — one of four endangered snake species that call Windsor home — is too fragile and too connected to its home base to be safely trapped and relocated. As part of its approved Endangered Species Act permit, Windsor agreed to protect and enhance some of that home base in South Windsor but also to expand the type of natural habitat where the Butler’s Gartersnake thrives in other city-owned areas, including at the nearby Spring Garden ANSI. Butler’s Gartersnake love tallgrass prairie meadows, of which less than one per cent remains in Ontario and of which Windsor hosts the largest remaining protected areas. Under the conditions of the ESA permit, Cedar said some city-owned property adjacent to areas already known to be home to the Butler’s Gartersnake will be restored and naturalized. The Ontario Endangered Species Act was enacted in 2007, and Fire Hall No. 5 is the first time Windsor staff has had to work with the province to obtain a permit to allow a development, said France Isabelle-Tunks, the city’s senior manager of development, projects and rights-of-way. “It was a long process — various applications had to be made and conditions had to be met,” said Isabelle-Tunks. It won’t be the last. Cedar said Windsor is home to over 100 species at risk, and urban expansion continues to pressure the city’s remaining natural space. “The city is working very hard not to develop areas where species are at risk,” said Cedar. Neither she nor Isabelle-Tunks would comment on the current logging and political brouhaha surrounding a proposed big-box retail development adjacent to the protected Ojibway complex.

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The site of a new firehall is seen on Daytona Avenue in Windsor on Thursday, March 31, 2016. Construction of the firehall has been delayed due to an endangered snake on the site. Tyler Brownbridge / Windsor Star

The city continues to map which areas are home to endangered species, said Cedar. Isabelle-Tunks wouldn’t give an estimate on the extra costs associated with getting the ESA permit, which is in effect until the end of 2027. Work will be ongoing over the next decade, and the city must file annual updates with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. Isabelle-Tunks said council will soon be getting a report on what the total expected costs are. About $50,000 has been spent to date on a consultant hired to guide municipal administration through the process. “We learned a lot — with that acquired knowledge we now have the in-house expertise,” she said. With the new permit, Isabelle-Tunks said administration is hoping a tender on the new fire hall can go out in May with council approval on the winning bid in June and construction to be completed by the end of summer 2017. Cedar might love snakes but, despite all her work on the file, Isabelle-Tunks still hasn’t warmed to the slithering reptile. “No, I’m going to stay away from that site,” she said.

dschmidt@postmedia.com

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