Monday, 29 February 2016

Snake island: Massachusetts to establish colony of venomous rattlesnakes

The plan is to save a species that’s been wiped out in the state – but some residents fear the snakes, which are capable of swimming, will escape the island

Oliver Milman in New York
Tuesday 23 February 2016 18.56 GMTLast modified on Tuesday 23 February 201619.17 GMT

A colony of venomous rattlesnakes is to be established on an uninhabited island in Massachusetts in a bid to save a species that has been virtually wiped out in the state.

Massachusetts’ division of fisheries and wildlife has devised a plan to release timber rattlesnakes onto the island to build up a viable population. But some residents fear that the rattlesnakes, which are capable of swimming, will escape the island and maraud across areas frequented by people and their pets.

The plan will involve taking eight young snakes – each measuring four to five feet – from a captive breeding program and releasing them onto Mount Zion, an island in the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts. The island, which is 1,350 acres in size and 3.6 miles in length, is uninhabited and is considered prime rattlesnake territory as it has undisturbed forest and boulders for shelter, with plenty of chipmunks and mice to feast upon.

It is hoped that the snakes raised at the zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, will be hardy enough to survive predators and establish a colony on the island. A healthy colony population is 150 snakes but officials are first aiming for a group of 35 snakes.

Hundreds of thousands of timber rattlesnakes once slithered across what was to be become Massachusetts prior to Europeans’ arrival in the region. But mass deforestation, combined with persecution of rattlesnakes which, along with hawks, bobcats and other animals, had bounties on their heads, saw their numbers crash.

There are just five populations of timber rattlesnakes, comprising perhaps 200 individuals, left in the state. Tom French, assistant director of the Massachusetts division of fisheries and wildlife, said it is “amazing” that any still exist, although pressures are mounting.

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