by Tom Parisi
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is honoring NIU Biological Sciences Professor Rich King, known as the godfather of the Lake Erie Water Snake, and his Ph.D. student Kristin Stanford, aka the “Island Snake Lady” of Ohio’s Put-in-Bay Harbor.
The conservation agency named King and Stanford among18 recipients of the 2009 Recovery Champion Award for their ongoing work with the federally threatened Lake Erie Water Snake. The awards were presented at a March 25 reception during the 75th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Milwaukee.
Stanford and King have made significant headway in protecting the threatened water snake. The region encompassing the islands and mainland of Lake Erie between the Ohio and Ontario borders is the only place worldwide where the snakes can be found.
King and his students have monitored the snake population for nearly three decades, and Stanford’s work was once featured on Discovery Channel’s popular program “Dirty Jobs.”
It’s safe to say the job, which requires catching the slithery creatures, comes with its hazards. The nonpoisonous snakes are known to spray their captors with feces and musk. Both King and Stanford have been bitten thousands of times.
“Kristin and I both felt humbled to be named Recovery Champions,” King said. “At the same time, it is extremely gratifying to have the accomplishments of NIU students, volunteers and agency partners recognized in this way. Like many academics, my research can sometimes be a bit arcane, so it is especially rewarding to see that our work has practical applications to wildlife managers and policy makers and attracts interest from the public.”
King’s studies began in the 1980s, when he identified early population declines and threats to the species. In recent years, Stanford has worked tirelessly to reach out to residents of the Lake Erie islands where the snake is found, to provide an understanding of the snake’s needs and to build support for its conservation.
“The dedication of Ms. Stanford and Dr. King to the conservation of the Lake Erie Water Snake, through both scientific methods and strong public involvement, has recovery efforts for this species to the point that the next step is to propose removing it from the list of endangered and threatened species,” said Tom Melius, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Midwest regional director. “There is no greater measure of recovery success.”