Timber -2
Timber Rattlesnake

An idea in early 2016 by the Mass Division of Fisheries and Wildlife to re-establish a population of timber rattlesnakes on an island in Quabbin Reservoir has received more lasting attention than most other efforts by any state agency in recent memory (here is their official website). This has developed into an interesting juxtaposition of science, emotion, state’s rights, and the role of the media. “Interesting,” is an understatement. The snakes may be an afterthought in this project if you listen or read the accounts of several meetings that have already occurred. A recent piece in the NYTimes is here.

At the forefront of the issue is Dr. Thomas French, a 30+ year veteran of the Department, and the Assistant Director of Nongame and Endangered Species Program. His office was formed as part of an overhaul (in the late 1970s) of the Division of Fish and Game (as they were long known) to pay some attention to the “other” 99% of wildlife in the State, as opposed to the game species that have been (and still are) the major focus for the Agency. A staff of 15 are tasked with paying attention to several hundred species of plants and animals that are listed as rare and endangered within the confines of the Commonwealth. This list is regularly reviewed, commented upon, and species are added or subtracted based on current best knowledge. The timber rattlesnake is certainly part of this list and you can get a copy of the states’ short summary here.

As of this writing (June 2016) I’m on the fence as to whether or not I think this project makes biological sense. There has not been a scientific proposal for review by rattlesnake biologists in the northeast and this has made many question the likelihood of success. However, the ecologists at Natural Heritage are professionals with a strong sense of duty. I’m willing to listen and wait to make a prediction and/or judgment. In addition, it’s not up to me.

The great thing about this project is, of course, that a state agency is willing to spend time and effort to actually help right the wrongs of the past 300-years of occupation. Like other species (the Labrador Duck, Atlantic Sea Otter, Heath Hen, not to mention many plants and others organisms) the Timber Rattlesnake has suffered at the fate of humans. Native Americans lived with these snakes, along with cougars, wolves, wolverine, and a host of ecological communities that supported their way of life. One of the earliest accounts of the rattlesnake by European Paul Dudley, Esquire (a Fellow of the Royal Society) was published in 1722 (here is a .pdf). A mix of wild mis-information, some accurate biology, and uneasy first aid suggestions, this set the stage for future visitors and residents to the New World.

Organized snake killing outings, bounties (local, county, and state), and random acts of violence have certainly depleted timber rattlesnakes in Massachusetts through time. One of the greatest threats to all rare species is the loss of habitat and that reached a peak for timber rattlesnakes by the mid 1800s. At that point, New England farmers along with the iron industry had removed nearly 80% of all our forests, leaving only woodlots and sugarbushes for chickadees, warblers, flying squirrels, lady slippers and hundreds of other species that need trees and forests. Some species, like the wild turkey and beaver disappeared entirely. Others, including the timber rattlesnake, hung on in tiny enclaves of steep, wooded hillside where even grazing by sheep and cattle was not possible or practical.

After the abandonment of New England farms (associated with the completion of the Erie Canal), the forest began to recover and many species were able to expand. Some had to be brought back by hand – beavers and wild turkey (first in Western Mass) for example. Others were not allowed to reestablish their former ranges – some of the remaining rattlesnake populations were continually slaughtered through the early 1900s. Today’s populations are isolated from each other, surrounded by roads, and encroached upon by poachers, gawkers, and plenty of natural predators. Today, the Timber Rattlesnake is one of the most endangered vertebrates in Massachusetts and is listed as extirpated or endangered in every other New England state. They are declining in most of the states they reside in and in those few locales where there are still healthy populations, new threats including fracking, house building, mining, and ridgetop development are making inroads. As one of the great symbols of New England’s vanishing wilderness the Timber Rattlesnake is just about gone and it’s about time the only state agency with a mandate to do something about it should be praised and supported for doing so.

So what about the fact that rattlesnakes are dangerous?

They are venomous, one of the great adaptations for getting a meal. It works great to subdue a chipmunk or mouse, less so on big mammals like humans. However, people have died from timber rattlesnake bites (though so rarely, it’s clear many, many more people die of bee stings), but in Massachusetts the last recorded death was in 1850.

I’ve been involved with two bites here in Western MA, one in 1971 and the other in 2009. Both were off the trail by people looking for them to capture and/or get a closer look. It took me 45 minutes to get my first friend to Holyoke Hospital and the second over an hour and a half to get to Baystate in Springfield. Both received multiple doses of antivenom (Wyeth in the first case, now supplanted by CroFab in the second). Both young men were admitted to the hospital in Intensive Care for three to four days and released. Neither had any permanent scars, health problems, or recurring issues. The first one moved away ten years ago to live in Australia; the second went on to study turtles! 

Of course, nobody wants to be bitten by a venomous snake. It is a serious medical issue that needs immediate attention and care. There is an easy way to not have this experience, however: stay on trails when hiking, keep your eyes open when in an area where rattlesnakes occur, and watch for them like any other wildlife.

Can local residents actually identify a venomous snake?

The short answer is: some can, many are utterly unable to do so. I’ve spent nearly 50 years collecting information on snake behavior, distribution, and biology here in Western Massachusetts, answering thousands of inquiries about snakes, writing extensively, and offering workshops, demonstrations, talks, and leading walks to teach people about the fascinating lives that snakes lead. Clearly that’s been inadequate. Many dozens of times I’ve been called to a house where the owners, convinced they’ve killed a rattlesnake or copperhead, showed me the carcass of a common, non-venomous species.

The confusion is understandable since less than 100 people a year throughout the state of Massachusetts –with approximately 6.8 million citizens – ever actually see a rattlesnake or even rarer, a copperhead. My number may be exaggerated slightly, but the fact is it’s difficult for most people to identify snakes – we just haven’t been trained to do so – a failing of our school system and environmental education in general.

Keep in mind how tough it is for most people to tell a Turkey Vulture from a Bald Eagle, a Largemouth from Smallmouth Bass, a Sugar Maple from a Norway Maple. Never mind all the really difficult things to identify (like grasses  or faded skippers. Now try to distinguish a Gartersnake from a Ribbonsnake, a Black Racer from a Black Ratsnake, or a Brownsnake from a brown morph Redbelly.

My experience with snake mistaken identity typically fall into these categories: “it was rattling it’s tail,” “it was puffing up,” “it was coiled and ready to strike,” or, “it looked like one I saw in a picture.” Each of these descriptions is accurate for one to several local, non-venomous species. Go back and read the descriptions I have for each one of them and educate yourself. We all need it!

Intended and Unintended Consequences of the Rattlesnakes in Quabbin Project.

While it would be nice to live completely worry-free in Western Massachusetts, we’re really on the wrong planet for that. From ice-storms and highway accidents to poison ivy vines clinging to firewood and tipping a canoe, we all take care to avoid these and countless other hazards in our daily life. In places where venomous snakes do occur currently, homeowners, foresters, hikers, and visitors have learned to add another to their list. Many people are thrilled if they actually see a Rattlesnake — it is truly an inspiring experience.

However, it is also true that many people just don’t like snakes – any kind. Some will kill every snake they see and are unlikely to be dissuaded to do otherwise. It would be an awful consequence of the Rattlesnake project in Quabbin if new snake-haters decided to kill every snake they see just to “be sure.” In my darkest thoughts, I fear for the safety of all the Watersnakes at Quabbin, not to mention the Milksnakes, Hognose, and even the tiny species.

On the other hand, this project could be a step in a brave, new world of natural history enlightenment. Imagine people actually fascinated by an impressive predator that survives on such little fuel, produces few live young that scent-trail their mothers, and also possess an incredible navigation system that sends them away from their dens each spring, and loops them around back in the fall – a system completely unknown and unstudied in the natural world. What about those incredible temperature-sensitive pits, between the eyes and nostrils,                                                                   that provide a thermal view of their forest floor domain? What IS that all about, really? How in the world did that ever evolve?

However it comes to be, the Quabbin Rattlesnake Project will go down as one of the bold moves for conservation in the early 21st Century that attempted to bring a species back from the brink of extirpation. This is not a faraway tropical rainforest or coral reef, or the top of a remote Andean mountain. This is conservation in our own backyard – real and alive. It will succeed or fail on its biological merits, not whether we citizens think it’s a good idea or not. It will be interesting to watch, that’s for sure.

  © Tom Tyning 2013