Let Mother Nature Do Her Job: Rattlesnake Island a Bad Idea


Why do wildlife officials think rattlers are needed?
I admit that the idea of stocking an island in the middle of Western Massachusetts' Quabbin Reservoir with endangered rattlesnakes gives me the willies. I hate snakes of all sorts. We occasionally get a grass snake in our basement and we don't reach for rubber gloves and a bucket—it's baseball bat, dustpan, and newspaper. I've joked about buying a mongoose to patrol the yard, but I'm only half kidding.

As any hiker knows, there's little as disconcerting as coming upon a rattler on the trail. I know the island where wildlife officials want to release dozens of adult timber rattlers. I've often stood on the New Salem side of the reservoir and admired its majesty on a clear autumn day with the fall colors reflecting off the water. Rattlers can swim, so if the island is stocked, I may indeed buy that mongoose and take it with me on future hikes at the Quabbin.

But even if I weren't squeamish about snakes, the idea of populating an island with them is simply a bad idea. Call it where micro managing, bad science, and starry-eyed ecological blindness meet. The two stated reasons for the program are that timber rattlers are an endangered species, and that they would consume rodents. The second is patently silly. In my time at the Quabbin I've yet to see field mice spiriting away small children into the woods, nor has my car ever been attacked by mohawked, leather-clad, chain-wielding chipmunk gangs. There are already plenty of critters feasting on rodents, including myriad hawks and owls, and resurgent bald eagle populations.

Back on their own
The presence of eagles is the best case not to allow zealous wildlife officials to tamper with the Quabbin's ecosystem. Eagles have come back to Western Massachusetts and here's the role state game officials played in their recovery: none. The raptors aren't the only species for which this is the case. In the early 1970s there were allegedly fewer than 100 black bears in the entire Commonwealth; now you can see them munching birdseed just about everywhere. Wildlife officials estimate there are 4,000 bears in Massachusetts now, a figure those who spend a lot of time in the woods find a risible understatement How about moose? Two decades ago a purported moose spotting was on par with seeing a unicorn–and invited about as much derision. Now our highways are dotted with moose crossing warnings and there may be as many as 1,000 of those tank-sized ungulates snorting around—roughly one for every ten square miles of the Commonwealth. For the record, there are already several small rattlesnake colonies in the Bay State, including one in the Blue Hills near Boston and another on Mount Tom near Holyoke.  

Eagles, bears, moose, and even rattlers have thrived or survived with no assistance from the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. That's because it's not about stocking—it's about habitat .Put another way, wilderness is not supposed to be an open-air zoo; its wild animals thrive when there is an ecosystem that sustains them and Mother Nature knows when that is.

There are a handful of restocking success stories in North America, most notably grey wolves in Yellowstone and the rebuilding of bison herds. These give hope, but they aren't real tests. Yellowstone is, in fact, a big zoo–and a heavily patrolled one at that. Any fool with miles of barbed wire can raise buffalo, which are just shaggy, weak-eyed cows on steroids. There are tens of thousands of empty grasslands acres out West where the buffalo can roam. Their recovery was simple: we just stopped shooting the poor dim beasts.

Atlantic salmon: multi-decade. multi-million dollar flop
But let's look at a spectacular failure in Massachusetts: the effort to reestablish Atlantic salmon in the Connecticut River. It was a noble idea, but after tens of millions of dollars and 45 years of trying, the effort was abandoned in 2010. Salmon might return to the river someday, but the ecosystem has to be friendly first. That effort will involve more than just improving water quality—a badly needed task to be sure; it would also entail demolishing  dams. That effort will pit consumer needs and business interests against those of a small number of sports enthusiasts and some literal small fry. Would you bet the farm on the latter? Connecticut River salmon are simply not sustainable as long as there are 54 dams in place.

Good intentions and good ideas are not always the same thing. Ecosystems are more complex than simplistic release and repopulate schemes. Let those timber rattlers continue to slither in a Rhode Island zoo. If the Quabbin ecosystem needs them, Mother Nature will provide on her own and in her own time.

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