by Whit Gibbons

March 27, 2016

I know winter is over when I check my email and see questions about snakes. Based on the recent number, spring has arrived. Some are questions I see every year. Others are totally new. Following is one I have never been asked before. To provide a full answer will require two consecutive columns.

Q: A friend told me she had read or heard something about a place in New England, I think near Boston, where some wildlife agency plans to release rattlesnakes. If this story is true, what do you think about such an idea?

A: It is true. The state of Massachusetts has proposed a plan to release endangered rattlesnakes on a 1,352-acre uninhabited island (Mt. Zion Island) in a large inland body of water (Quabbin Reservoir) that serves as the drinking water supply for Boston. I applaud the governor and wildlife officials in the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife for their proposal to assure the continued existence of one of America's most iconic snakes, the timber rattlesnake.

Why would the MDFW even think about releasing rattlesnakes anywhere in the state? According to the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the MDFW "is responsible for the conservation - including restoration, protection and management - of fish and wildlife resources for the benefit and enjoyment of the public." Their rationale is that the MDFW should protect rattlesnakes along with other native species. Some people like the idea of having these formidable, self-reliant, awe-inspiring predators as part of the natural landscape. They provide an atmosphere of adventure, something many nature enthusiasts appreciate.

I spoke to Tom French with the MDFW about releasing the rattlesnakes. He said, "this population would serve as a safety net" because the species is "slowly but consistently" declining in numbers. The state's plan is to establish a population of timber rattlesnakes in order to protect it from further degradation of its native habitat, highway mortality and persecution by people who unlawfully kill rattlesnakes. I say "unlawful" because timber rattlesnakes have been officially protected in Massachusetts since 1979, and a heavy fine can be imposed on a person for intentionally killing one.

Timber rattlesnakes, called canebrake rattlesnakes in the South, are indisputably venomous, which is critical for them to catch their prey such as rats, squirrels and chipmunks. The species was found historically in parts of all but two eastern states, Michigan and Delaware. They once occupied virtually all natural terrestrial habitats including hardwood and pine forests, mountains and river floodplains. Today, few remain in urban or suburban neighborhoods or areas of intensive agriculture, in part because of human intolerance to their presence. They are believed to now be extinct in Maine and Rhode Island. Wildlife officials in Massachusetts are afraid their state might not be far behind.

Despite the potential to inject a lethal dose of venom into other animals, timber rattlesnakes are benign creatures; their first response to a human is usually to remain motionless. Many will not even rattle when approached, and numerous people have actually stepped on a large rattlesnake without being bitten. Anyone coming across a timber rattlesnake can watch it from a safe distance.

However, like many animals, including bluebirds, raccoons and koalas, rattlesnakes will defend themselves if pestered and will bite if handled. The solution to that problem is the don't-pick-them-up rule. A Don't Tread on Me revolutionary battle flag bore a picture of a timber rattlesnake. Benjamin Franklin is credited with referring to the flag when he wrote, "She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage."

Another notable historical fact is that the timber rattlesnake has the distinction of being the first North American species of snake to receive a formal scientific name. Carl Linnaeus named the species in 1758. No other U.S. snake can claim that legacy.

Next week: What are the concerns about and justifications for releasing the rattlesnakes?

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