The state has planned to develop a colony for timber rattlesnakes on an off-limits island in Massachusetts’ largest body of water. However, the decision has been met with fears expressed by locals, who are concerned that the snakes may move into surrounding woods and attack hikers and fishermen.
Tom French, of the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, who is directing the project at the Quabbin Reservoir, spoke about people’s fears. “People are afraid that we’re going to put snakes in a place of public use and that they are going to breed like rabbits and spread over the countryside and kill everybody,” he said.
The snakes, which are indigenous to Massachusetts, are classified as endangered; and only 200 of them are left in five pockets – from Boston to the Berkshires. The project is hailed as empirical, since disappearance of habitat could wipe out the species altogether.
The plan to establish a colony on Mount Zion, a plan that has received endorsement from Governor Charlie Baker, has been under consideration for weeks. A few snakes will also be raised at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island; these will be moved to the island in a couple of years when they become mature enough.
French said that people’s fears regarding the plan concern the fact that the snakes may be able to swim from the island into the mainland through causeways that connect them. As reported by Associated Press, local resident Bob Curley said, “When the inevitable happens and there is an interplay between a hiker and a rattler, what’s the repercussion? Are the trails around the Quabbin going to be shut down?”
The state posted a message on its website aimed at putting to rest people’s concerns. “In Massachusetts, Timber Rattlesnakes usually remain year-round within about two miles of the traditional den site,” the message reads, “but individuals do occasionally disperse up to four miles away. In the unlikely event that a rattlesnake did cross the 0.3 mile long causeway, it would still be in an area with far less human activity than nearly all of the other Massachusetts rattlesnake populations. While rattlesnakes are perfectly good swimmers, their survival depends on access to unusually deep hibernation sites (hibernacula), usually in a rock talus or boulder field below a ledge, or a deep fissure in bedrock. These special habitats are scarce on our landscape. Any snake that leaves the island whether by water or over the causeway will not be able to find a suitable hibernation site and if unable to return will die over the winter.”
Rattlesnakes aren’t known to bite humans. Ever since colonial times, there haven’t been any documented incidents of rattlesnake bites, French said, adding that in his 32 years with the state he does not recollect a single incident despite the population of rattlesnakes in public lands. French also said that people’s fears stem from their aversion to snakes.
Nancy Allen, chairwoman of the select board in Petersham, said that while people had expressed their fears to her, they were put to rest once they learned more about the project. “Once they started to look into the facts, people started to change their minds,” she said.