PETERSHAM, Mass. (WWLP) - It's a heated yet intriguing debate. Protecting an endangered snake versus the fear of placing potentially deadly vipers on the Quabbin Reservoir.
The 22News I-Team went out to the island where these snakes would live beginning next year. We discovered it's not an island at all, you could walk to it. We'll also show you the babies up close and we'll let you decide if the fear of a rattlesnake colony is rational.
Timber rattlesnakes can swim and they can be deadly. Now the state wants to put a colony of these venomous vipers on a Quabbin Reservoir island.
(Is the Quabbin Reservoir a good place for these timber rattlesnakes?)
"I don't think so," said State Senator Anne Gobi.
"Nowhere else in New England I can imagine is a better place to try this experiment," said Tom Tyning, Environmental Science Professor at Berkshire Community College, who has been radio tracking snakes for 25 years.
Our story begins at the Roger Williams Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island. "Here's where the timbers that are slated for release live and grow up, we also have a bunch of adult snakes here that are captive breeders," said Lou Perrotti, the Director of their Conservation Program at the Zoo.
(We're hearing that rattle now, what does that mean?)
"That's a warning, oh my god you can see, stay away from me, back up, the rattle is a warning sign, that's there protection, not the venom, the venom is for feeding and securing prey," said Perrotti.
(If a human hears that rattle, go the other way?)
"Go the other way, snakes do not attack people, that's all a myth," said Perrotti.
Here's why the state is interested in breeding them. The timber rattlesnake is endangered in Massachusetts. They help control rodent population and stop spread of lyme disease. It's estimated there's only 200 left in Massachusetts, including on Mt. Tom and in the Blue Hills.
(With this project, what's the goal to get to get that number up to?)
"Our goal is to get 100-150 snakes as a viable population," said Anne Stengle, PhD candidate at UMass, who has been working with this species since 2009.
(Has there been any similar colonizations like this out on an island?)
"Not with snakes no, this would be the first time," said Stengle.
(Is the goal to help an endangered species or is this a science experiment?)
"It's too ensure we don't lose Timber Rattlesnakes," said Tom French, the Assistant Director of the state's Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and in charge of this project.
French told the I-Team this project would cost taxpayers around $1,500 a year through a federal grant. The state's plan is to release one to ten snakes per year on Mt. Zion in the Quabbin.
The Quabbin Reservoir runs from Belchertown to New Salem and Petersham down to Ware. Where the snakes would be placed, on Mt Zion, it's closest to Petersham, but the other end of the island is closest to Hardwick.
The I-Team took a boat out to where the snakes would live. From the area of Mt. Zion the state wants to originally colonize these rattlesnakes, to the shoreline by water in Petersham, it's only about a mile. Timber Rattlesnakes can swim.
(How often or how many of these snakes swim?)
"It's a very rare occurrence, there are videos of them swimming, but we're talking less than one percent of the population actually decide to take the water and swim," said Stengle.
At the other end of Mt. Zion, about four miles from where the state plans to place these snakes, there is one thing you notice. It's not an island at all, it's connected to land via a causeway. These snakes have been known to travel anywhere from one to 3.5 to 4.5 miles in the summer.
(Mt. Zion is connected by land at one point, that mileage, does that keep them on Mt. Zion?)
"Is it possible that a snake could get off the island, even briefly of course its possible the likelihood is incredibly small, still though it could be too much of a likelihood for some people," said Tyning.
Are you really in danger of getting bit? The CDC says there are 7-8,000 venomous snake bites in the U.S. each year.
From 1999-2014, it was more likely to die from a venomous spider than a venomous snake and about nine times more likely to die from a hornet wasp or bee sting. There were 921 deaths associated with hornets, wasps or bees. 112 from venomous spiders and 101 from venomous snakes, classified as venomous snakes or lizards by the CDC.
If you do get bit, not every hospital carries the anti-venom. It is expensive and has an expiration date. Baystate, Berkshire and UMass Memorial do. Since 2015, these hospitals have treated 32 snake bites. Baystate told the I-Team they treated 28, Berkshire and UMass Memorial said they treated two each.
It was about a half an hour boat ride to Mt. Zion. I did have cell phone service, but If someone was ever to be bit, the closest hospital to Petersham, is UMass Memorial in Worcester about a 52 minute drive.
"Ideally if you can get treatment within six hours with anti-venom, the outcome is like 99% survival," said Dr. Ben Mattingly, Baystate Health Wilderness Program Director.
In the Quabbin region, it's not entirely a fear factor. Tony Brighenti is the President of the North Worcester County Quabbin Anglers Association. He said, "We do fish out there and the DCR rents boats, and boats sometimes break down. What happens if a family is out there they break on Mt. Zion."
There's also concerns about tourism, home values and the stigma of a rattlesnake island. Rodney Flagg owns a bait shop in Orange. He said, "The people who hike in there and go bird watching, the snakes in there, they aren't going to go."
William Meehan is a Trustee with the Water Supply Protection Trust; "What's going to happen to property values once its known that the state has created a snake island inside the Quabbin. From my perspective much of their concerns were laid as its just fear of folks against the snakes. To the people here its real."
It is rare, but these timber rattlesnakes can be deadly.
(Would the state be liable if one of these snakes released into the Quabbin ends up biting or killing someone?
"That's so statistically improbable," said French.
Last year 39 year old Russell Davis of Pennsylvania was killed by a timber rattlesnake at his campground. His parents sent us two letters. In one from his mother she wrote, "I know usually they pose no danger unless provoked, but one misstep can cause your world to change forever, something I hope no other family experiences."
(If that one case does happen, is it a mistake?)
"That's sort of the beauty of this project, these snakes will stay on Mt. Zion Island, where no one is allowed to go. Currently we're working with the challenge, where we have over 200,000 hikers a year in state parks where we have rattlesnake population. Our challenge has been to protect the snakes, those 200,000 people have been safe, yes one person could die," said French.
(If someone did get bit, whose hands will that blood be on?)
"If anything like that were to happen, I would say it would be on the state's hands," said Senator Gobi.
(Is this a done deal?)
"We're always open to listen to a scientific reason why this would be a risk, or a bad idea," said French.
Senator Gobi disagrees that this is a done deal. There's a legislative hearing at Athol Town Hall on May 10th at 11:00 a.m. The public is invited to attend, but can't speak. Only invited guests will be able to give testimony. If you want your voice heard on this proposal, which ever side your on, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments.