A 1,400-acre island in Massachusetts' Quabbin Reservoir may soon be ruled by venomous timber rattlesnakes, part of a plan to save the locally endangered reptiles by giving them a safe haven from highways and habitat loss. No humans live on the island, but some nearby residents are nonetheless uneasy about the idea.
"I'm skeptical," local author and Friends of Quabbin chairman J.R. Greene recently told the Springfield Republican newspaper. "Everyone I've talked to is opposed to it. People are just suspicious of snakes."
Much of the opposition stems from fears that timber rattlers will return to the mainland and terrorize people. The 412 billion-gallon reservoir is located about 80 miles west of Boston, and critics of the rattler-rehab plan have raised concerns about the possibility of snakes attacking hikers, anglers and others who frequent the surrounding woods. (The island itself is already off-limits to human visitors.)
"When the inevitable happens and there is an interplay between a hiker and a rattler, what's the repercussion?" another resident asks the Associated Press. "Are the trails around the Quabbin going to be shut down?"
The proposal inspired enough concern that state officials held a public meeting on Feb. 23 to address such worries. The problem, experts say, is due to confusion about native timber rattlesnakes and about the proposal itself.
No more than 10 young snakes would be released per year, according to Tom French, director of the state's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP). After being toughened up for two winters at a zoo in Rhode Island, they'd be radio-tagged and released at the island, known as Mount Zion, starting in spring 2017.
Even then, survival is far from certain: Mount Zion has lots of mice and chipmunks to feed the rattlers, but it's also home to snake-eating raptors, coyotes and bears.
"They are going to have a hard life," French tells the Republican.
Hard as it may be, the hope is that life on Mount Zion would be slightly easier for timber rattlers than life near humans. "We need one place in the state where we can protect snakes from people," French said at the public meeting.
Timber rattlesnakes are widespread in the Eastern, Southern and Central U.S., but due to habitat loss and other conflict with humans, the ancient predators are now rare in some northern parts of their range. They've been eliminated from Maine and Rhode Island, for example, and only one enclave still exists in New Hampshire. It's "quite remarkable" any timber rattlers are left in Massachusetts, according to an NHESP statement. At least two of the state's populations have disappeared in recent decades, and of five that remain, two face "immediate jeopardy."
Timber rattlers come in regional color varieties, but all have tails that fade to solid black. (Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr)
Like most snakes, timber rattlers have far more reason to fear people than we have to fear them. And they're well aware of the danger we pose, often going out of their way to avoid us. They almost never strike at humans unless provoked, points out University of Massachusetts Ph.D. candidate Ann Stengle, who has studied timber rattlers for seven years. "If you want to get bitten by a timber rattlesnake, poke it with a stick," she tells the Republican. "If you don't, leave it alone."
No fatal rattlesnake bites have been reported in Massachusetts since colonial times, according to French, who says he can't even remember an accidental bite in his three decades with the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Ten new snakes per year on an uninhabited island are unlikely to change that, even though it is possible — if improbable — that snakes could wander away from Mount Zion.
Timber rattlesnakes are strong swimmers and could easily swim off the island, but they could also just slither across a causeway that connects it to shore. Yet while there's no physical barrier keeping the snakes in place, French has cited a few reasons why he doesn't expect any problems with rambling rattlers.
Created in the 1930s, Quabbin Reservoir now supplies drinking water for 2.2 million people. (Photo: Henry Zbyszynski/Flickr)
For one thing, newly released snakes will wear tracking devices to help wildlife officials monitor their movements and return them if they leave. Plus, timber rattlesnakes need boulder fields with deep crevasses to hibernate in winter, habitat that's abundant on Mount Zion. They'd have little incentive to leave the island, especially since it would be difficult to return by scent, forcing wayward snakes to find a new hibernation site on shore or freeze to death in winter.
At the Feb. 23 meeting, a woman reportedly asked what good the venomous snakes do. They help keep rodents in check, but French also alluded to a less tangible value. "Ecologically, the bald eagle is no different from the timber rattlesnake," French answered. "For that matter, what good does the bald eagle do? I guess it gives us pleasure. That question can only be answered on a personal level."
Regardless, he added, "it's our statutory duty to protect them both."
Although rattlesnakes may pose little danger overall, that doesn't mean we should let our guard down on their turf. It's always wise to keep an eye (and ear) out for snakes in wooded areas — and for other, more dangerous wildlife.
"There have been three moose-related fatalities in the past 15 years," French noted at the public meeting. "The thing you should be most afraid of is the moose."