by Whit Gibbons

April 3, 2016

Last week I wrote that the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife plans to release timber rattlesnakes on an island. No one lives on it, but it is open to the public and is in the reservoir that provides the water supply for Boston. What are the justifications for taking this action? What have citizens in the state indicated they are concerned about?

As I stated last week, the rattlesnake release plan is a good sign that the state has the proper progressive attitude about all native wildlife and natural environments. Not surprisingly, the concept of releasing rattlesnakes in an area where they once occurred but no longer do has been met by opposition in town meetings and in letters or emails to editors and elected officials.

Most people against the plan seem to have concerns about snakes in general, with apprehensions based more on fear than on science. One worry is that hikers could be bitten. In response, the agency notes that the state has always had rattlesnakes in many regions and the MDFW is "not aware of any human fatalities since colonial times." The idea is to replenish the state's native wildlife. Many people feel that the benefits of restoring an impressive native animal outweighs the risks of a person being bitten by one. Furthermore, no one who lives in fear of snakes is required to go to the island.

The wildlife biologists in Massachusetts have collected years of ecological data on timber rattlesnakes in the region. Their approach to the project is thoroughly science-based but, as is often true with people and snakes, misconceptions can run rampant.

One mistaken but oft-repeated belief is that the agency intends to release more than a hundred rattlesnakes at one time. In truth, the introductions will take years with the release of no more than a few juvenile snakes a year.

The project has been carefully planned, based on years of study. The research will continue by radio-tracking each of the newly released snakes to see where they go and how many survive each year.

One question is, Will the reintroduction of rattlesnakes have an impact on wildlife the way pythons have in the Everglades? The ecological situation is completely different. Pythons were introduced from another continent. Rattlesnakes were already in Massachusetts where they have eaten small critters for centuries, long before European colonists arrived.

Another concern is the possibility that a rattlesnake could swim across the reservoir to the mainland and start colonies there as well. All snakes can swim, so one leaving the island will likely happen eventually.

But if a pregnant female rattlesnake does reach the mainland, if the habitat is not suitable, she will not survive. If she does happen to have babies, it would still take many years before her offspring could produce a sizable population.

Timber rattlesnakes take 5 to 10 years to reach maturity and have young only once every 2 to 6 years.

Some fears that have been expressed expose a lack of knowledge about biology in general and snakes in particular. One is that venom from the snakes could pollute Boston's water supply. That one is total nonsense and reveals how irrational fears about a topic can lead to misconceptions.

First, rattlesnakes only release their venom into another animal, not into water. And even if they did, the amounts would be undetectable.

An equally uninformed concern was that the rattlesnakes might breed with the racers and gartersnakes on the island. That one is a biological impossibility.

We need to take a more enlightened stance about our country's wildlife heritage and not remain shackled to old superstitions and overblown fears about how dangerous certain animals can be.

We're long past the landing of the Pilgrims, and ignorant beliefs about wildlife should be cast aside. Let's embrace the 21st century with rational and open-minded environmental attitudes. I think the time to release the rattlesnakes has come.

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