San Francisco International Airport is the seventh-busiest airport in the United States. In a typical year, approximately 55 million people pass through SFO on their way to destinations throughout North America and beyond.
At some point during their journey to or from the terminals at SFO, each one of those people will pass by a seemingly unremarkable 180-acre parcel of land. Surrounded by highways and train tracks, the soggy and overgrown vacant lot isn’t just home to rows of power lines. It’s also home to the world’s largest population of the beautiful and highly endangered San Francisco garter snake.
According to a recent study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, there are approximately 1,300 San Francisco garter snakes at SFO’s West of Bayshore property – the greatest concentration of these snakes ever recorded.
Conservationists have long known that the San Francisco garter snake was in trouble. In fact, it landed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s very first endangered species list, which was published in 1967. Over the years, agricultural, commercial, and urban development have destroyed much of its wetland habitat, as well as much of its primary food source, the California red-legged frog. The snakes have also been a popular target for poachers and collectors.
Since 2008, SFO has been working with the USFWS on a recovery strategy for the species. Together, they’ve made enhancements to the West of Bayshore habitat, including building rainfed ponds and deepening existing wetlands. They have also added fences to protect habitat and prevent illegal collection.
But low population counts at other locations means the recovery for the San Francisco garter snake is far from over.
Combining genetic and demographic monitoring better informs conservation of an endangered urban snake
A San Francisco Airport Site Is Crawling With Snakes—And That’s a Good Thing
Photo, posted April 16, 2011, courtesy of Brian Gratwicke via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.