Earth Matters: Fear of rattlesnakes at the Quabbin unwarranted

  • This photo was taken by Anne Stengle, a biologist who studies rattlers in Massachusetts ANNE STENGLE

For the Gazette
Published: 7/1/2016 4:02:58 PM

In 2013, wildlife agencies from nine states, led by MassWildlife, were awarded a half-million-dollar grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Its purpose: Conserve native snake populations threatened by a fungal disease.

It stated that “up to 40 snake species” could be involved, but only specified two, both rattlesnakes: the massasauga (found in western New York) and the timber rattlesnake.

When the Pilgrims arrived, rattlesnakes were present across much of New England. Their historical presence in our area is indicated by such place names as Rattlesnake Gutter in Leverett and Rattlesnake Knob in the Holyoke Range.

Benjamin Franklin used a rattlesnake to represent the colonies in America’s first political cartoon and wrote that the rattlesnake was an appropriate symbol for America: “She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage … she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.”

After a few centuries of habitat destruction and persecution, the species is now extinct in Maine and Rhode Island. Massachusetts has only five surviving populations. Two others in our state have disappeared recently, and the remaining few are declining.

In some parts of the world, snakes can be a threat to human life. In the entire United States, though, fewer than 10 people per year die from snakebites. Most victims were handling the snake that bit them, not innocently bitten by an unseen snake in the grass; nearly half had been drinking alcohol beforehand.

In Massachusetts, only three snakebite deaths have ever been documented, none since the Civil War. In the past century, even swans have killed more people in our state than rattlesnakes!

Most of our remaining venomous snakes live on popular public lands that host picnics, festivals, even school field trips involving hundreds of thousands of children every year. Why are there no deaths?

The main reason is that snakes have limited venom, and they need it to eat. Using too much on humans means starvation. It is much better for the snake to hide using stealth and camouflage. If that does not work, the snake can try to scare us away with its rattle, or a “dry” bite that injects little or no venom. Those tactics save venom for a last resort, or better yet for their prey — mainly small mammals and birds.

While snakes pose almost no threat to us, we are the greatest danger to them, through road kill, habitat destruction and intentional killing. Timber rattlers grow and breed very slowly. It can take nine or 10 years for one to reach maturity.

Mature snakes breed only once every three to five years. They have no more than 14 young at a time. This makes it difficult for them to replace casualties.

MassWildlife is trying to save these endangered snakes from extinction. Since the five remaining populations are declining, and the largest cause is humans, the logical solution is to separate the snakes from people. But the existing populations are close to roads and residential neighborhoods, in popular hiking and recreation areas. The most obvious solution is to find a new home for the snakes.

Rattlesnakes cannot survive just anywhere, not this far north. In order to survive the winter, they require an underground refuge deep enough to escape hard freezes. No rattler has ever been found more than 4½ miles from such a site, and most stay within a mile or two.

MassWildlife found one location that included a deep hibernation spot, and is on publicly owned land but not actually open to the public: Mount Zion, formerly a hill and now an island in the Quabbin Reservoir. The island’s only connection to the mainland is a causeway at one end, over three miles from the proposed snake refuge.

A population in such a remote area would pose even less danger to humans than the populations currently living in heavily visited state parks.

No one objected to rattlesnake conservation until MassWildife selected part of the Quabbin for the new population. Some of the opposition is related to the creation of the reservoir itself in the 1930s, when four towns were destroyed. That generated a great deal of understandable hard feelings and anti-government sentiment that persists in the Quabbin area today.

Some people also were afraid that the presence of an endangered species would restrict their already limited access to the Quabbin’s recreational zones. Media hyperbole, along with many people’s fear and lack of information about snakes, were added in and suddenly a logical, fact-based conservation plan, supported by the governor, was under fierce attack.

The state senate, deluged with messages of opposition, has called for a one-year “freeze” on the plan, with at least one proposal to block it entirely. In view of the facts, this seems misguided.

Rattlesnakes are a part of Massachusetts and always have been. Ben Franklin would be terribly disappointed if he knew we were allowing such an iconic species to disappear from our state.

Joshua Rose is a naturalist who lives in Amherst. He is a Hitchcock Center member and a board member of the Hampshire Bird Club; he regularly leads programs for local nature-oriented groups. For more information about timber rattlesnakes in Massachusetts, visit http://www.masnakes.org/snakes/timber_rattle/.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information go to www.hitchcockcenter.org, call 256-6006 or write to column@hitchcockcenter.org.


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