Snake Island image killed Plan A for R.I. rattlers

Public opposition has scuttled a plan to introduce a new population of timber rattlesnakes, raised at Roger Williams Park Zoo, on Mt. Zion island in central Massachusetts’ Quabbin Reservoir. They will be released elsewhere in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The last time a person was bitten accidentally by a timber rattlesnake in Massachusetts was in the 1700s, says Joseph Larson, the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife Board Chairman.

People who harass snakes and try to capture them may get bitten, and if that happens, they have hours to seek medical help.

“There are hospitals across our state that are prepared and have anti-venom treatment,” Larson said.

Yet Americans are scared of the slithering reptiles, and that is no different in Massachusetts. The board had hoped to introduce a new population of endangered rattlesnakes raised at Providence’s Roger Williams Park Zoo on the island of Mt. Zion in the Quabbin Reservoir.

But following some opposition, that plan was axed and the board is going back to the drawing board to develop a statewide plan to preserve the endangered species.

“It was a punch in the gut,” said Lou Perrotti, the director of conservation programs at the zoo. “We can’t just conserve the cute, the fluffy and the appealing, because we need to balance the ecosystem.”

Larson echoed Perrotti: “If we just protected the species that we like, we would have nothing but bunnies and butterflies.”

The zoo’s timber rattlesnakes will be released in already existing populations, Larson said. To protect endangered species from poaching, those locations are not made public, but Larson said two of those are well known: the Blue Hills reservation outside Boston and the Mount Tom reservation in the Connecticut River Valley.

The timber rattlesnake is disappearing. The last population in Rhode Island was seen in Tiverton 45 years ago, according to an article published in The Providence Journal in January. They are no longer found in Canada, and the last time a person found one in Maine was more than 100 years ago, in 1901.

Part of the issue is the disappearing habitat — the rattlesnake needs deep fissures it can hide in to hibernate over the winter — and another issue is people. Humans have long poached and killed snakes, Larson said.

So in hopes of protecting the species, the zoo has been raising snakes. There are a dozen young snakes and five breeding adults there now, Perrotti said.

The snakes would have been placed on Mt. Zion, a 1,410-acre uninhabited island in the reservoir, where the snakes would not be affected by humans.

The Fisheries and Wildlife Board established the rattlesnake working group, made up of town officials and nature organizations, among others, and held public meetings, collecting comments from across the state sent by mail and email, Larson said.

“It runs the gamut all the way from people who hate snakes to people who love them,” he said of the comments.

Some of the opposition was due to the fear of snakes, while others feared the Quabbin Reservoir may become restricted to fishing, for example.

But Larson also blamed the board, and the rattlesnake working group it established, for the plan’s downfall.

“The bottom line on this is, we should have anticipated the reaction that caught us by surprise, and we should have probably produced a [statewide] comprehensive plan from the beginning,” he said.

Now Larson said, the group is “digging ourselves out of a hole that we’ve created.”

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

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The timber rattlesnake is disappearing. The last population in Rhode Island was seen in Tiverton 45 years ago.