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At The Anchor and Wheel Inn, news of a $300-million residential, golf, and marina development being proposed for Pelee Island has the welcome sound of better times for Mark Emrich.

Mr. Emrich has run the inn and restaurant since 1985, and seen his business drop in the past decade, as the tiny economy of Canada's most southerly community has stubbornly continued to shrink.

"We really need it," he says of the 20-year development proposal being considered as part of the township's draft official plan. "Not only for me, but for the whole island. It would bring more people here, and we need more people."

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The proposed 3,000 condominiums, townhouses and apartments, along with a 600-slip marina and two golf courses - with a total investment of more than 100 times the municipality's annual budget - would transform the isolated Lake Erie island of 300 residents. It would create hundreds of seasonal and year-round jobs in the community that now supports about 90.

But there's a catch. The project will take up nearly 400 of the island's 4,000 hectares, and Pelee is one of Ontario's most ecologically sensitive, home to as many as 45 of the species at risk in the province, including two endangered snakes: the blue racer and the Lake Erie water snake.

A public meeting on the project is scheduled for next Thursday, but to go ahead, Pelee Development Interests will need a green light from the provincial government under the terms of Ontario's new Endangered Species Act - legislation that was substantially shaped by the island's dramatic and fractious recent past.

"Pelee was a microcosm of a lot of the policy tensions that were going on related to endangered species in the province," recalls Ontario Environ- ment Commissioner Gord Miller.

"Everyone said look at the situation on Pelee. That's the situation we have to address. If we can't resolve Pelee, then how the hell are we going to do this on a provincial basis?"

EMBROILED IN BATTLE

For more than a decade before the new law was introduced last year, the island was embroiled in a battle with the province - and the snakes were at the heart of it all.

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Like its darker, common relative, the northern water snake, the Lake Erie water snake is not venomous. Although its entire global range is limited to the western Lake Erie archipelago that includes Pelee Island, the snake was once so numerous that the islands here were known as "Les Iles aux Serpentes," Now its population has fallen to less than 1,000 on the Canadian side of the lake, while the blue racer, whose only refuge in Ontario is on the island, numbers just 200 to 300.

In the 1990s, after university researchers began focusing attention on the disappearing island snakes, staff from Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) arrived to announce that, under the province's existing endangered species act, the snake's habitat was sacrosanct and couldn't be altered.

"Oh my God, we were under terrible strain here because development was almost coming to a standstill," says former mayor Bill Krestel. "If you had endangered species habitat somewhere, you couldn't build at all. There was no negotiation on it."

The ministry halted expansion plans by a large quarry (the rocky pit was perfect for snakes). Plans to build another inn on the island also were stalled. In some instances, even cottagers were told not to build on their property.

A tipping point came in 1998, when the MNR hired snake researcher Ben Porchuk to map the island's endangered-species habitats - ostensibly to allow residents to claim a conservation tax rebate. The maps, which marked off stretches of private property and shoreline, took islanders by surprise.

"Maybe not a land-grab but awfully darned close," Mr. Krestel says.

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The islanders dug in. There were reports of people willfully destroying snake habitat on their land, and attacks on Mr. Porchuk - he had a rock thrown through the window of his house, and his truck tires slashed. In 2003, the municipality began selling hundreds of "No MNR" signs from its town office. Landowners covered the island with them, warning government staff and researchers to stay away.

Mr. Porchuk, who had lived on the island on and off since he began studying blue racers in 1993, had planned to stay. But after several personal threats and crank phone calls, he sold his home in 2004 and left for good.

Ironically, the brouhaha that started on behalf of the snakes did little to help them. Research and monitoring efforts on the island were all but shut down when property owners became un-cooperative.

Kevin Wilson, an assistant deputy minister with the MNR, was one of several senior provincial officials, advisory panel experts, and politicians (including opposition leader John Tory and David Ramsey, then minister of natural resources) who quietly made fact-finding visits to the island in 2005 and 2006, during the height of the dispute.

The visits, with help from the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which bought up hundreds of acres of ecologically sensitive property, led to a kind of détente. But, more important, they focused attention on a central problem: "There was no flexibility in the old act to do things creatively," Mr. Wilson says.

THE OHIO EXAMPLE

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Just how badly Ontario's approach failed Pelee Island's snakes can now be glimpsed by looking across the border to the Lake Erie islands that belong to Ohio. Thanks to a recovery program that began in 2003, with measures that accommodate the creature without halting development, Ohio's water-snake population has rocketed from between 1,500 and 2,000 in 1999 to more than 12,000. While Ontario's snakes remain endangered, U.S. officials are expected to recommend next month that the water snakes be removed from the American list of species at risk.

Whether Ontario's new rules are enough to produce similar results remains to be seen. The new law is intended to be less draconian and allows property owners to build on habitat for endangered or threatened species if, for example, they create suitable habitat elsewhere.

"It's an overall benefit or net-gain approach," says Mr. Wilson. "The goal of the act is to raise the tide for all boats. It provides protection and recovery of species first and foremost, but it gives us a bunch of other tools so we can still get the benefits of our economy as well."

As for the new Pelee Island development plan, "I think it will be a great test," says Mayor Rick Masse. "If we're able to pull it off, it's going to be an example of how the new Endangered Species Act works."

George Paisiovich, who speaks for the developer, says the project is being designed with Pelee Island's natural heritage - and recent history - in mind. Slated for what is now mainly farm fields adjacent to the Stone Road Alvar Conservation Area, it will leave a third of the property undeveloped as a nature area.

The plan's potential impact on island wildlife, however, remains unclear. Last month, the province provided its first feedback both to the proposal and to the rest of the island's draft official plan. According to Mayor Masse, nothing seems to pose an insurmountable obstacle, and Mr. Paisiovich says the company is reviewing the comments and revising its proposal for consideration at next week's public meeting.

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What's most important, he adds, is the promise of long-overdue economic growth - and the prospect that the new development may finally close the book on the troubled saga of Pelee and its snakes.

"We're talking about a community where there are just nine students in its school, where businesses are closing," he explains. "They've had enough disappointment and enough setbacks and the rest of it. We have to get this right."

Peter Christie is a science writer who lives in Kingston, Ont.

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