A state plan to establish a colony of venomous timber rattlesnakes on an off-limits island in Massachusetts' largest body of water has some rattled by visions of dangerous serpents slithering through woods, attacking humans. Those are completely irrational fears, said Tom French of the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, who's directing the project at the 39-square mile Quabbin Reservoir and has heard from residents who fear the snakes will escape the island. "People are afraid that we're going to put snakes in a place of public use and that they are going to breed like rabbits and spread over the countryside and kill everybody," he said. There are only about 200 of the endangered snakes indigenous to Massachusetts left in five scattered pockets from greater Boston to the Berkshires, French said. Loss of habitat and human-caused deaths means they could disappear altogether, which is why the Quabbin project is so critical.
The plan to establish the snakes on Mount Zion—a 1,400-acres island—has been in the works for years. A handful of snakes will be raised in Rhode Island, and placed on the island in a few years when they are mature enough to survive. "When the inevitable happens and there is an interplay between a hiker and a rattler, what's the repercussion?" asks an avid hiker, who doesn't think the Quabbin is the place for the preservation effort. Rattlesnakes are timid and only strike when provoked; there have been no documented rattlesnake-bite deaths in Massachusetts since colonial times. On Mount Zion, the snakes will be safe from human interference, have ideal places to hibernate and plenty of mice and chipmunks to eat. "We want one place where the impact of people is not part of the equation," French said. The state's message appears to be getting out. One recreational fisherman opposed the project at first, but changed his mind. "People are just petrified of snakes," he said. (Read more rattlesnake stories.)