“What is the difference between bald eagles and rattlesnakes?” bemoaned Tom French, the director of a MassWildlife project to save the latter. “Everyone wants us to save the eagles, but nobody cares about the snakes, which have always been persecuted.”
French told PJM he is especially concerned for the timber rattlesnake. People have been chopping their heads off since the 18th and 19th centuries when county officials would pay money for the carcasses.
Timber rattlesnakes, which have experienced the greatest decline of any native reptile in modern history, are a native state-listed endangered species.
French said there are only five surviving populations spread out from the New York border to the Blue Hills near Boston. As few as 200 of the snakes remain in Massachusetts.
The greatest danger to the timber rattlesnake is man, according to French, and the five populations that remain are mostly in areas where humans live. While it is illegal to kill or even disturb a rattlesnake, crime happens. And timber rattlesnake lovers wouldn’t even want to think about what happens when a snake crosses a heavily traveled road.
Unfortunately for these squirming creatures, whose ancestors were living in what is now New England long before the Pilgrims sighted land, they are surrounded by snake-hating and fearing humans.
French said the best hope to spare and breed the few snakes still alive was to get them away from humans as quickly as possible. He hopes the MassWildlife program to establish a timber rattlesnake preserve on Mount Zion, the largest island in Massachusetts’ Quabbin Reservoir, will give them a snake’s idea of a Garden of Eden in which to flourish.
As part of an overall rattlesnake conservation strategy, he said, MassWildlife is proposing to establish a small group of rattlesnakes on Mount Zion, a large island closed to public access at the Quabbin Reservoir located in central Massachusetts.
Quabbin Reservoir is owned and managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR) Division of Water Supply Protection. The Quabbin Reservoir is, coincidentally, the site of MassWildlife’s well-known and successful American Bald Eagle restoration project.
French said the program would be similar to MassWildlife’s successful endangered turtle restoration program with Northern Red-Bellied Cooters: juvenile snakes from Massachusetts will be “head-started” in captivity by the Roger Williams Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island.
“Each juvenile snake will be kept over a period of two winters to allow them to grow to a size that deters predators,” he said. “The young snakes to be released on Mount Zion will be equivalent in size to a 4- or 5-year-old wild snake with a much higher probability of survival.”
It’s not like they are going to dump hundreds of snakes on the island. French said they expect to release less than 10 in any given year.
But human fear of snakes breeding like rabbits, producing thousands of the serpents that run rampant on the 1,350 acres of Mount Zion before eventually swimming off the island to the mainland of Massachusetts, and then slithering their way to a hostile takeover of Rhode Island, could derail the idea that is just getting started.
“There’s a lot of resentment,” J.R. Greene, a local historian and chairman of the Friends of the Quabbin, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the reservoir, told the Boston Globe. He said there were also fears the MassWildlife project will close the recreation area around the reservoir to people in “another example of Boston lording it over this part of the state.”
Afraid that emotion will ruin the plan to save the snakes, French stressed there is no reason to panic.
To begin with, snakes don’t breed like rabbits, French said. Even if the preserve did turn into a sex-and-procreation romp for the reptiles, they could never survive a swim from Mount Zion to the Massachusetts shore, so there is almost no chance they would wind up in Rhode Island.
French said the snakes would have very little reason to leave Mount Zion. Not only is it large enough to provide plenty of space for a small, but healthy population, they wouldn’t have to worry about people stomping around and taking selfies with the snakes before crushing them under a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
As for the fear of getting bitten by a snake, French said humans don’t have much to fear from the reptiles. Hundreds of thousands of people tramp through the Blue Hills of Massachusetts very year, yet French said very few, if any, complained of snake bites.
“Usually, when it does happen, it’s because people are trying to move snakes into a better position for a photo,” French explained, “and they discover they should have used a longer stick.”
There are no recorded cases of people being killed by a rattlesnake bite since that kind of data has been compiled, a period that covers more than 50 years, French said.
“But you will find a case of a 4-year-old child who was killed by a swan in the 1930s,” he said. “I believe it was a drowning.”
So, French said, there is no need to worry about snakes killing people. But he is very concerned about the Massachusetts General Court wrecking the dream of a people-free preserve to protect timber rattlesnakes from humans.
There are two change.org petition drives regarding the Mount Zion snake island proposal. He isn’t too concerned about the online efforts.
“One is for our plan, the other is against it,” French said, “so I think they will balance out.”
But a very vocal contingent of Massachusetts and Rhode Island residents is pushing the state’s General Assembly to get involved and that is very worrisome to French.
“Putting this into the political forum,” French said, “would be a bad way to make a scientific decision.”