Environmental officials in Massachusetts are trying to restore an endangered population of native rattlesnakes. The Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence is helping out with the project.
Historically, timber rattlesnakes enjoyed a broad range across New England. But over the past few decades, they’ve been completely wiped out in Maine and Rhode Island. Lou Perrotti, director of conservation programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo, said snakes have lost a lot of habitat to development.
“A lot of road mortality from snakes crossing roads,” said Perrotti. “Of course you have poaching pressures – people trying to take them for illegal pet trade – and just indiscriminate killing from people who are prejudice of venomous snakes or snakes in general.”
The zoo is breeding timber rattlesnakes in captivity for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. They’ll eventually take these snakes to central Massachusetts to an island at the site of a reservoir.
“It’s off limits to humans,” said Perrotti. “So we wanted to put the snakes in an area where the snakes would be safe from humans. We didn’t want people going in there killing them, poaching them.”
The project is stirring opposition from residents worried snakes will swim off the island and bite humans and pets. But Perrotti said the island has all the food and shelter snakes need to stay on the island.
Perrotti said he understands why people fear venomous snakes, but “there are populations in Mass now where tens of thousands of people hike every year and there's never bite incidences.”
He said rattlesnakes don’t like to move beyond three to four miles from their dens, which are found in remote rocky areas. He said people who get bitten by snakes tend to be people who intentionally capture or try to kill snakes.
Perrotti said conservation managers are starting small with the timber rattlesnake conservation project.
“We’ll be lucky if we can get five young snakes out there by 2017, 2018," said Perrotti. "They will all have radio transmitters in them, so we’ll be able to track their progress to see if they’re adapting well.”
Perrotti said rattlesnakes play an important role in the ecosystem, as food for other animals and as predators for rodents. He thinks the project will serve as a model for protecting species that aren’t considered charming.
Note: This post has been updated.