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Efforts continue to protect snake in Havasu region

May 19, 2019

Arizona Game and Fish Department officials are making efforts to preserve one of the most elusive snakes in Arizona, but they’ll have to find it first.

The northern Mexican garter snake was added to the federal registry of endangered species in 2013, and despite recent sightings in the Lake Havasu region, the Arizona Game and Fish Department says its numbers are dwindling. The agency’s governing commission was briefed last week on the snake’s status, as well as efforts to preserve the species.

“They were first sighted on the Bill Williams River in 2012,” said Arizona Game and Fish biologist Ryan O’Donnell. “Rangewide, they’re listed as a threatened species. In Arizona, they’re listed as a species of greatest need for conservation.”

The Game and Fish Department surveyed the Bill Williams River area, as well as the Havasu region for sightings of the snake this year. According to O’Donnell, the effort met with mixed results.

“There were more than we thought they were, although their habitats are very patchy,” O’Donnell said. “We’re trying to find where they are, and we’ve received a lot of help from the BLM and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management funded the department’s most recent survey efforts. According to records provided by O’Donnel, that survey resulted in the discovery of one northern Mexican garter snake within the Bill Williams River watershed, after more than 30,000 trap-hours.

“We’ve been updating the Game and Fish Commission on our research,” O’Donnell said. “(The snake species) has been seen in Lake Havasu, but we don’t yet know how abundant they are there. Game and Fish, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is trying to get a handle on their locations, and other parts of the state, agencies have started captive breeding programs.”

According to a 2018 Northern Arizona University study, northern Mexican garter snake populations have been in sharp decline over the past two decades due to threats such as native and non-native predators, habitat-loss and the loss of native fish and amphibian prey.

Northern Mexican garter snakes often exist on riverbanks and in wet grassland areas, such as those found at Bill Williams River.They can grow as long as 44 inches, and are identified by a dark background color with light lateral stripes.

Throughout Arizona, survey efforts located 28 northern Mexican garter snakes. According to O’Donnell’s briefing to Arizona Game and Fish Commissioners last week, additional surveys will be necessary along the Bill Williams River, as the snakes’ remaining habitat has proven difficult to access or study without the use of remote sensing equipment or drones.

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