Grassland wildlife populations are influenced primarily by habitat and weather factors. Habitat quality, also, can be directly impacted by weather conditions. Much of the annual variation shown by small game populations, for example, can be the result of weather conditions during critical periods (i.e., nesting, brood-rearing, and winter). Long-term trends, however, tend to be tied more directly to habitat quality, quantity, and distribution.
Weather, then, is of primary importance in interpreting annual fluctuations in grassland wildlife populations. Severe winter weather, consisting of prolonged periods of deep snow or ice and colder than normal temperatures, tends to result in higher than normal overwinter mortality and, thus, reduced brood stock in the spring. Cold, wet periods in the spring and early summer can impact survival of young wildlife by chilling eggs or young animals or flooding nests. Extended periods of drought can affect vegetation growth and, thus, cover quality. Drought can also make insects and seeds less available as food for growing wildlife.
Land-use and technological changes are of primary importance in explaining long-term population trends for grassland species. An increasing human population with the resultant increase in urbanization and residential and commercial development yields fewer acres for wildlife. Likewise, modern farming’s emphasis on more efficient and larger equipment and increased reliance on chemicals reduces the quantity and quality of available habitat. On the other hand, federal farm policy that idles agricultural land and requires herbaceous cover crops can improve habitat conditions for farmland wildlife.
Most of Ohio is in private ownership, and, thus, habitat management on public lands is of little value in terms of impacting grassland wildlife populations at the state level. However, land-use practices that benefit grassland wildlife can result from regional or federal government programs and policies. For example, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) created by the 1985 Farm Bill and continued by the 1990, 1996, and 2002 bills idled more than 300,000 acres of cropland in Ohio. Most of this acreage now supports a cover crop of grasses, legumes, and wild forbs. To the extent that this acreage is not disturbed during the nesting season, these areas provide moderate to good quality nesting cover for many grassland birds. Pheasants, in particular, showed a numerical response to the availability of additional safe nesting cover resulting from this federal program in its early years. This program has changed focus over time, particularly in the 1996 bill, but continues to provide habitat for grassland nesting species.
Return to Top
According to popular accounts, rabbit populations increased as Ohio's vast forests were cleared by early settlers and remained high through the 1800s. Since that time, rabbit numbers have declined. As with pheasants, rabbit populations are closely tied to habitat quantity, quality, and distribution. Intensive use of farmland in western Ohio, and reforestation of abandoned farms in the southeast hill country since 1900 account for the observed decline. Division of Wildlife surveys since the 1950s show that rabbit populations have fluctuated annually, but have shown a relatively stable long-term trend.
Cottontail rabbits occur statewide today with highest densities in southern and eastern Ohio. This brushland edge species is Ohio's most popular small game animal. Its adaptability to a variety of habitat types and conditions has allowed it to maintain reasonable numbers in spite of human population growth, habitat loss, and intensive land use.
Population and Harvest Surveys
Ohio rabbit populations are monitored annually by roadside counts in April and August. Rabbit harvest is monitored annually through hunter surveys conducted each fall.
Spring Rural Mail Carriers Survey –For 12 working days (Monday to Saturday, 2 consecutive weeks) in early April each year, rural mail carriers in Ohio are asked to record the number of cottontail rabbits they observe along their delivery routes. This survey is run on a volunteer basis. Cooperating mail carriers return survey cards with their wildlife observations and information about the route (e.g., post office city, route number, county and townships of route, route length, and number of observation days during the survey). To increase the accuracy and reliability of survey data, Ohio postmasters and rural mail carriers are provided with instructions for completing the survey and species identification information. These materials and postpaid survey cards are mailed one to two weeks prior to the survey to over 650 post offices representing nearly 2,600 rural routes. We routinely receive data from nearly 1,400 routes. Analyses are based on matched routes, that is, routes run during both the current and past year. Normally, about 1,000 routes will provide matched data, although recent declines in participation have been noted. Data are converted to rabbits observed per 1,000 survey miles and are compiled at the state level. These data provide an index to rabbit populations at the onset of the breeding season. County indices can be generated; however, the limited number of routes and survey miles for many counties limit the usefulness of such data. Statewide indices provide reasonable estimates of long-term population trends for rabbits. Additionally, an overwinter mortality index can be derived by calculating the percent decline from the last summer's index to the current spring's value. Detailed information with historical data can be found in the Rabbit Spring Population Table. This survey has been in use for over 40 years in Ohio.
In addition to rabbit populations, pheasants and quail populations were also monitored using this survey until 2002. A statistical review of the Rural Mail Carrier (RMC) survey in cooperation with The Ohio State University (OSU) showed that estimating population trends for northern bobwhites and ring-necked pheasants were unreliable using these survey data. Beginning in 2003, rural mail carriers were no longer asked to report their observations of pheasants and quail. Population trends for these 2 species will instead be monitored by the bobwhite whistle count survey and the pheasant crowing count survey. See the Northern Bobwhite and Ring-necked Pheasant section for more information.
Summer Rural Mail Carriers Survey—Like the spring survey described above, this survey is conducted by cooperating rural mail carriers on a voluntary basis during 12 working days in early August. Survey procedures and data analyses are similar to those described above. Data from this survey provide an index to rabbit populations prior to the fall hunting seasons and after most of the year’s production has occurred. Further, the percent difference between the statewide spring and summer indices for each species provides an index to annual production. Detailed information with historical data can be found in the Rabbit Summer Population Table.
Upland Wildlife Harvest Survey—This harvest survey is described in detail in the Ring-necked Pheasant section (below). Rabbit hunters were asked if they normally hunt rabbits, if they hunted rabbits during the current season, how many days they hunted rabbits, how many hours they hunted per trip, how many rabbits they had harvested, if they hunt rabbits in February, and which Ohio county they hunted in most last season. Survey results for 2004-05 indicated that Ohio has approximately 193,000 rabbit hunters who harvest over 1.7 million rabbits in about 9 days of hunting per season.
Return to Top
Barn owls are not native to Ohio; however, they expanded their geographic range into the state from the south as Ohio's vast forests were cleared and grassland cover types like hay fields, pastures, wet meadows, and emergent wetlands became more common. Grassland cover types are necessary for barn owls because they feed almost exclusively on small mammals, especially meadow voles. This owl was first documented in southern Ohio in 1861 and was still considered rare in 1880. Barn owls increased substantially in number and distribution over the next 20 years so that, by the turn of the century, they were common in southern Ohio and rare in the northern half of Ohio. Barn owl numbers peaked in the 1930s with a statewide distribution and have declined steadily since that time. This decline has been linked to the long-term increase in row crop agriculture and concurrent decline of grassland cover types across Ohio. In recent years, barn owl nesting activity has been centered along the glacial border in 2 areas: the Wayne-Holmes county area of north-central Ohio and the Ross-Pike county area of south-central Ohio. Nesting activity is rarely documented in more than 10-15 counties in any year; this species is currently listed as threatened by the state of Ohio.
Sentinel Nest Box Survey—Ohio barn owl populations have been monitored statewide since 1988 through a nest box project. Because natural cavities are difficult to locate and are temporal in nature, artificial nest boxes were placed in barns and other suitable structures near good quality foraging habitat in an effort to determine if a local breeding population is present. When properly placed, these "sentinel" boxes are readily used by barn owls. These boxes were checked each spring (mid-May to early June) for signs of nesting activity from 1988-2004. Active sites were monitored and the young owls banded when 2-4 weeks of age. Adults were caught either while roosting in the box with the young, or at night during feeding periods. As sentinel boxes became actively used, additional "area" boxes were placed nearby (i.e., within 5 miles and in areas of good foraging habitat). Use of these area boxes helped to define the size of the local breeding population.
From 2005-2009, nest box checks were limited to a mid-summer determination of whether the box was used for the current nesting season. Maintenance of nest boxes occurs during the winter months and any new boxes are in place prior to March 1st. Information from the general public often aids Division personnel in locating new nesting sites.
For the past 5 years, favorable spring nesting conditions have yielded the highest numbers of active nest sites since monitoring began in 1988. The 2009 nesting season was slightly above last year, and is the 2nd highest with 77 active nest sites. Early summer rains provided abundant meadow voles available for fledglings; however, dry weather later in the summer may have reduced fledging success of late nests. Barn owls are very dependent upon meadow voles as their primary prey; consequently, when meadow vole production is down so are the numbers of barn owl chicks that survive to fledge. Nest success information for barn owls in Ohio during the last 20 years can be found in the Barn Owl Table.
Other surveys - We began development of an audio/visual survey for barn owls in 2006 in an attempt to locate active natural cavity nest sites. Effective and efficient survey techniques are still being tested. Call play-backs were used in 2009 in an effort to increase observations. Travel restrictions reduced the number of surveys we were able to run. Call-playbacks will be used again in 2010 in additional areas to test the technique.
Return to Top
Ring-necked pheasants are native to northern China, Korea, and southern Siberia. This popular game bird was first introduced to west-central Ohio in and around Mercer County in the 1890s. Initial attempts to establish a viable wild population were unsuccessful. Repeated attempts to establish this bird proved successful, however, and by 1914 pheasants were being distributed throughout Ohio. The state of Ohio began stocking pheasants in 1919. Pheasant populations first became established along Lake Erie between Toledo and Cleveland and in central Ohio. Agricultural land-use practices at the turn of the century were ideal for the establishment of this species. For example, farm fields were small, fencerows and field dividers were common, pastures and hay fields were interspersed among abundant small grain crops, and chemical control of weed and insect pests was not yet widespread. As a result, pheasant numbers increased quickly and peaked in Ohio at approximately 5 million birds in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Highest densities occurred in the Lake Plain counties of northwest Ohio. High pheasant populations persisted through the 1940s and 1950s with annual harvests averaging around 750,000 cock pheasants.
Agricultural production intensified and became more industrialized after World War II. Mechanical equipment became more common and increased in size. Field sizes increased to accommodate the new equipment, while fencerows, wetlands and odd-area habitats were lost as a result. Row crops, especially corn and soybeans, replaced small grains in many rotations. Acreage in pasture and hay declined and was used more intensely (i.e., hay was cut more than once during the nesting season). Chemical control of weeds and insects increased in popularity. Pheasants, and other grassland birds, declined as a direct result of habitat loss. The population distribution also shifted with large declines in northwest and south-central Ohio and increases in northeast Ohio. By the late 1960s, Ohio's pheasant harvest declined to 100,000 to 300,000 cock birds annually. Hunter success rates have paralleled total harvest and reached all-time lows in the mid-1980s; success rates appear to have stabilized since the inception of the CRP.
Population and Harvest Surveys
Ohio pheasant populations were monitored annually in April and August by volunteer rural mail carriers from 1959-2002 (see Cottontail Rabbit section for RMC survey details). Statisticians at the Ohio State University (OSU) reviewed the rural mail carrier survey and determined that it was no longer reliable for pheasants on a regional level in Ohio. Beginning in 2003, pheasant counts were no longer collected on the spring and summer rural mail carrier survey. Historical survey data can be found in the Pheasant Spring Population Table and Pheasant Summer Population Table.
Crowing Count Survey—Declining survey participation and large annual variation in rural mail carriers survey data prompted the need for an additional survey to monitor ring-necked pheasant population trends in Ohio. An annual spring crowing count survey was initiated in 2001 with 58 permanent routes in 16 counties throughout Ohio’s pheasant range (Pheasant Survey Graph). Routes are located in five weather regions across the state. Surveys are run once from 23 April to 15 May by Division of Wildlife personnel. Observers remain the same each year whenever possible. Also, routes are run within the same week each year when weather conditions are favorable (e.g., wind <7 mph, skies clear to partly cloudy, moderate to heavy dew, no rain during the survey). Surveys start 40 minutes before sunrise and consist of 12, 3-minute listening stops. The survey is completed in about 1 hour. Observers record weather conditions before and after the survey, monitor wind and precipitation conditions at each stop, record time and mileage at each stop, and record the number of crowing cock pheasants and total number of calls heard at each stop. Pheasants seen along the survey route are also recorded. Pheasant abundance is indexed by the number of pheasants heard per stop; distribution is indexed as the percent of survey stops with pheasants calling.
Upland Wildlife Harvest Survey—Since the 1950s hunting pressure and harvest were monitored for rabbits, pheasants, and quail through contacts made in the field between wildlife officers and sportsmen. These hunter contacts were normally scheduled to occur in every county on the opening day of farmland game season as well as on the first 2 Saturdays of the season. Wildlife officers and other wildlife personnel asked hunters for information on hours hunted, game harvested, and hunt status (complete or in progress). Beginning in 1994, these data were collected statewide through use of postpaid harvest questionnaires distributed to upland game hunting parties or placed on vehicles located in suitable openland habitats. Data from returned questionnaires were used to generate weather region indices by species.
In the fall of 2000, this harvest survey was replaced with a post-season questionnaire mailed to likely upland game hunters based on Point-of-Sale (POS) licensing system data. Every few years when hunters purchase their hunting license they are asked if they hunted rabbits, pheasants, or quail in the previous year. A random sample of quail, pheasant, and rabbit hunters are selected from those who answered “yes” for each species. A postage-paid questionnaire is sent to each hunter selected with a letter requesting their participation in the survey. Repeated mailings are sent requesting survey participation to increase response rates. Undeliverable surveys are replaced with additional randomly selected hunters. Pheasant hunters are asked if they normally hunt pheasants, if they hunted pheasants that year, how many days they hunted pheasants that year, how many hours they usually spent hunting on each trip, how many wild and how many stocked pheasants they had harvested, and what Ohio county they hunted pheasants in the most that season.
Survey results for 2004-05 indicate that Ohio has approximately 131,000 hunters who pursue pheasants for an average of 6 days out of the available season. Each season, approximately 150,000 wild pheasants and 350,000 stocked pheasants are harvested in Ohio. The Division of Wildlife provides pheasant hunting opportunities annually during both the Youth Hunters’ Small Game Season and the regular pheasant season by releasing pen-raised cock pheasants at select wildlife areas around the state. In 2009, the Division of Wildlife released 15,450 pheasants for this program.
The northern bobwhite, or bobwhite quail, is a popular native grassland game bird. Prior to settlement, quail inhabited prairie edges or areas that had been recently burned or opened up by high winds. As settlement occurred and Ohio's vast forests were cleared, the quail population increased in number and distribution. Quail have inhabited all Ohio counties with highest densities historically in southwestern and west-central counties. Ohio's high human population coupled with ever increasing urbanization and intensive farming practices have reduced habitat quality and quantity in many parts of the state. Further, because Ohio is on the northern edge of quail range, pronounced reductions in quail numbers correlate with prolonged periods of severe winter weather. The most notable of these reductions occurred in 1912 and 1978. Because of habitat fragmentation and declining habitat quality, the 90% reduction in 1978 significantly affected the distribution of this species and its ability to recolonize areas of suitable habitat. Today, quail harvest is allowed only in 16 counties in southwestern and south-central Ohio and the season has been restricted to the month of November. Outside of the open quail hunting zone, fair numbers of quail occur in select west-central, central, southeastern, and east-central counties with remnant populations in many other Ohio counties.
Population and Harvest Surveys
Ohio quail populations were monitored annually in April and August by volunteer rural mail carriers from 1959-2002 (see Cottontail Rabbit section for RMC survey details). Statisticians at OSU reviewed the rural mail carrier survey and determined that it was no longer reliable for quail on a regional level in Ohio. Beginning in 2003, quail observation data were no longer collected on the spring and summer rural mail carrier survey. Historical data can be found in the Quail Spring Population Table and Quail Summer Population Table.
Bobwhite Quail Whistle Count Survey—Bobwhite quail populations can be monitored effectively during the breeding season by locating male quail through their distinctive "bobwhite" call. Thus, from June 10-30 each year, Division of Wildlife personnel run audio-visual surveys on predetermined routes throughout the state. Up to 4 routes are established in each of Ohio's 88 counties. The number of routes per county is a function of county area and habitat suitability for quail. Each route consists of 12 stops on rural roads separated by at least 1 mile and located near potentially good quail habitat; a route is set up to effectively survey a 3-township area. Fifteen routes were selected at random in each of Ohio's 10 weather regions. These permanent routes were run each year 1985-96. In 1997, the number of routes run was reduced in northern and eastern Ohio. Routes selected to be run annually as permanent routes were those most indicative of quail status, usually where quail were most frequently recorded within the last 5 years. Low quail numbers and their limited distribution resulted in further route reductions again in 2003. At least 2 routes are run in all counties open to quail harvest or adjacent to the open quail hunting zone (except for Hamilton county where only 1 route is established), and additional routes are run when necessary to provide reliable data for opening or closing counties to harvest.
Quail are monitored in other areas of the state by the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS; see the American Crow section for details). Routes are run by the same observers each year whenever possible. Also, routes are run on the same date or as near as possible to that date when favorable weather conditions occur (e.g., winds <12 miles per hour, no precipitation during the survey, clear to partly cloudy skies, moderate to heavy dew, and no excessive background noise). Surveys start at sunrise and consist of 3-minute listening periods plus travel time between stops. The survey lasts approximately 1 hour. Observers record weather conditions at the beginning and end of the survey, monitor wind and precipitation conditions at each stop, record time and mileage at each stop, and record the number of individual male quail heard calling and the total number of calls at each stop. Quail seen along the survey route are also recorded. Habitat conditions and changes are noted so that routes can be adjusted periodically. Routes and stops for the current year are matched during analyses with the previous year's data. Quail abundance is indexed as the mean number of quail per stop (Quail Abundance Table); distribution is indexed as the percent of survey stops with quail (Quail Distribution Table).
Upland Wildlife Harvest Survey—This harvest survey is described in detail in the Ring-necked Pheasant section. Quail hunters are asked if they normally hunt quail each year, if they hunted quail in the current season, how many days they spent hunting quail, how many hours they hunted per trip, how many wild quail and how many stocked quail they had harvested, and what Ohio county they hunted in most during the season. Survey results for 2005-06 indicate that Ohio has approximately 9,500 quail hunters who harvest 62,000 quail, about 60% of which are stocked birds, in 5 days of hunting per season.
Quail Hunter's Log Survey—Due to small sample sizes for quail in the former upland game bag check survey, a second harvest survey was initiated in 1991. Cooperating hunters from around the state were asked to record information about their quail hunts over the entire season. These hunters were recruited initially from Quail Unlimited chapters and other organized sportsmen's clubs. Advertisements in Wild Ohio and recruitment efforts of county wildlife officers added additional names periodically. Although about 400-450 hunters were mailed survey materials, <100 useful hunter's logs were returned in most years. Cooperators were provided with a survey card, detailed instructions, and a postage-paid return envelope. Hunters were asked to record data for each hunt, not just for successful hunts. Information was requested on the county hunted, number of hunters, hours hunted, coveys flushed, total birds flushed (excluding reflushes), and harvest of male and female quail. A follow-up mailing was made 2 weeks after the season closed to encourage return of survey logs. After data editing and entry, analyses allow for the comparison of flush and harvest rates at the weather region and open quail hunting zone levels. Unfortunately, too few cooperators hunted outside the southwest and south-central weather regions to make comparisons with other weather regions valuable. Further, county data were generally not sufficient to allow valid comparisons among more than a few counties in the southwest weather region. Harvest indices were calculated as coveys flushed per 100 gun-hours, total quail flushed per 100 gun-hours, and total quail harvested per 100 gun-hours. Information related to harvest and flush rates as well as the number of survey cooperators and hunting pressure is provided in the Quail Hunters Log Table. This survey was discontinued following the 2002 hunting season because the POS licensing system makes it easier to identify quail hunters for post-season sampling.
Return to Top
Peregrine falcons were removed from the Federal endangered species list in August 1999. In Ohio, peregrines are a threatened species. Falcons regularly migrated through Ohio but did not nest here historically because there were no high cliffs required for nesting. Recovery efforts and use of man-made structures for nesting have allowed falcons to breed in here since the late 1980s. The population grew steadily through the 1990s and is now approaching 30 nesting pairs. Many avid birders volunteer to assist the Division of Wildlife as we annually locate and monitor these nesting pairs. Others simply enjoy them from a distance, preferring to follow them throughout the nesting season via web cameras. In 2010, 29 successful nests fledged 67 young falcons. Interest in the birds and program remains high among Ohio's falcon enthusiasts.
Peregrine falcons are monitored primarily by Division of Wildlife personnel and volunteers. Individuals and pairs located are monitored regularly throughout the breeding season to determine nesting status, location, and success. Young produced are monitored daily after they fledge until they gain sufficient skill in flight to avoid the perils of the urban environment. Whenever possible, young peregrines are banded and a blood sample is collected for genetic analysis at approximately 3 weeks of age. Banded adults are identified; all banding data and blood samples are processed through The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota. The ODNR, Division of Wildlife continues to actively monitor the state's breeding peregrine falcon population as part of a national effort to ensure the long-term viability of this once federally-listed endangered species. Web cameras have aided in both monitoring active nests and educating the public about falcon conservation efforts. Data on peregrine falcon nesting pairs, success and banding in Ohio from 2006 to 2010 are presented in the Falcon Nesting Table.
Return to Top
Mourning doves are considered to be the one of the most popular game birds in the United States. Because of their popularity, mourning doves have received much study and management attention throughout their North American range. In Ohio, the mourning dove provides a unique opportunity because, unlike our other upland bird populations, mourning doves have benefited from intensive agricultural practices and suburban development. This prolific species has been estimated to have a fall population in Ohio that equals or exceeds four million birds.
Call-count Survey—This survey, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is used to index mourning dove populations throughout the United States. This survey was initiated in 1953 and has been run in its present form since 1966. Survey routes were selected at random and stratified by physiographic region. Each route consists of 20 stops, separated by 1-mile intervals, on rural or other lightly traveled roads. The survey is conducted from 20-31 May each year with a grace period extending to 5 June for routes that cannot be completed on time. Whenever possible, the same observer is used each year. Surveys start one-half hour before sunrise and last about 2 hours. Weather conditions during the survey must not include precipitation or winds >12 miles per hour. Observers record weather variables, time, mileage, doves calling per stop, doves seen per stop, doves seen while traveling between stops, and the level of background noise or interference at each stop. These data are used to generate the mean number of doves heard calling per route for each physiographic region. State indices are a function of physiographic region means and land area in each region.
Return to Top
The American crow is a common and widely recognized species that breeds throughout most of the contiguous United States. It nests in all 88 Ohio counties, but is most abundant in the unglaciated portion of Ohio. Clearing of Ohio's vast forests allowed this native species to increase in number. As a result, crows are more abundant today than in pre-settlement times. Although not a forest species, crows thrive in areas with ample trees for roosting and nesting and abundant fields for feeding. Crows continue to thrive in Ohio in spite of intensive land use, modern farming practices, and their nuisance status to many people.
Harvest of crows was not regulated in Ohio prior to 1972, primarily because of their widespread distribution and the fact that crows can be, and often are, a nuisance or pest species in agricultural areas. The 1973 amendment to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act established federal guidelines under which this migratory species could be harvested in individual states. Ohio's present season is based on these guidelines and occurs outside of the breeding season for crows.
American crows, and a host of other species, are best indexed through the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). This continental survey is cooperatively coordinated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service. Data have been collected in a standardized manner on nearly 3,000 routes since 1966. The BBS is a roadside survey conducted on permanent routes annually in June. Routes are 24.5 miles long and have 50 stops spaced at 0.5-mile intervals. Surveys start one-half hour before local sunrise and last for 4 to 4.5 hours. All birds seen or heard during a 3-minute observation period at each stop are recorded. Data are summed over all stops for each route by species.
Return to Top
As with most of Ohio's farmland wildlife, grassland birds were present in low numbers in pre-settlement times with populations closely tied to the tallgrass prairies of western and northwestern Ohio. Clearing of forests for agriculture and farming practices that included hay and meadow crops, small grain fields, and pastures resulted in increased numbers and expanded distribution for many grassland species during the 1800s. Intensive agriculture and continued decline in grassland habitat types have resulted in significant declines in the breeding populations of many of Ohio's grassland-dependent birds, especially since the mid-1900s. The population status of many of these species can be used as an indicator of the health of Ohio's remaining grassland ecosystem.
Ohio's grassland bird species are best monitored by the BBS survey. Survey procedures were described in detail in the American Crow section (above). Grassland bird species with reasonable data for Ohio include the bobolink, eastern meadowlark, grasshopper sparrow, and Henslow's sparrow.
Return to Top
In 1951, noted Ohio herpetologist Roger Conant stated, “We have learned only recently that this snake is a part of Ohio fauna. The presence of this western snake in the prairies of Ohio, so far east of any other known colony, would seem to constitute one of the most remarkable examples of prairie relict yet recorded.” While it is widely distributed throughout the prairies of the north-central United States and once lived in the prairies of Wyandot and Marion counties, today this snake is only found at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area. In the 1940s and 1950s, plains garters were found in 11 Ohio localities. By 1980, only 1 location (Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area, KPWA) was found to still have this species. Due to habitat loss, this docile, non-venomous snake was designated as a state endangered species in 1974. In 1984, Dalrymple and Reichenbach estimated the density of the snake at 52-123 snakes per hectare. In 1998, Reichenbach duplicated the study and reported a 94% decline of the snakes. In the fall of 1998, the Division of Wildlife met with several herpetologists and personnel from the Columbus Zoo to initiate a recovery program for this species.
The isolated population of Plains garters at Killdeer is a genetically unique population. Ecologist and evolutionary biologist, Professor Gordon M. Burghardt at The University of Tennessee, worked with the Division of Wildlife to examine the genetic diversity of the Ohio garters compared to the diversity found in the robust Midwestern population.
Pregnant snakes were collected in 1999 and 2000 to establish a captive-breeding colony and learn more about the snake's biology. Eighty-nine neonates (newborn snakes) produced from breeding colonies established at the Columbus and Cleveland Zoos have been released at Killdeer to augment the wild population from 1999-2002. No neonates were produced in captivity in 2003.
A Population Viability Analysis completed in May 2003 indicated that the most feasible method to increase the wild population of snakes would be to retain neonates until their juvenile stage and then release them versus the release of newly born snakes as previously done. Twenty-four juvenile snakes born at the zoos in 2004 were released in June 2005 and thirty-five 1-year-old juvenile snakes born at the zoos were released during the summer of 2006. Seventeen neonate and four 1-year-old juvenile snakes born at the zoos were released during the summer of 2007. All the juvenile snakes were implanted with a passive integrated transponder (PIT) to facilitate their identification during later mark-recapture surveys. All 3 1-year-old snakes were also implanted with radio transmitters to track their movement and determine habitat use following their release. To date, 258 live neonates have been produced from the captive colonies; 148 of those have been released (50 as neonates and 98 head-started 1-year old juveniles).
Annual surveys of the Plains gartersnake have continued at Killdeer. A point-count survey technique utilizing standardized field survey protocol was established to maintain consistency among the various research teams. PIT tags were implanted in all plains gartersnakes. The sex of each snake was recorded, as well as the reproductive condition, snout-vent lengths, tail length, and weights. This effort is being coordinated by herpetologist Doug Wynn with the help of students from the Westerville North High School Field Studies Class. Eight captures occurred at 2 sites in 2008. These data along with information from the previous years of this study indicate that the east to west distribution is essentially the same as noted in past years.
Return to Top