By Scott W. Buchanan, The Providence Journal, Rhode Island
PROVIDENCE, R.I. - 1/29/17- Lou Perrotti unlocks a heavy metal door and steps into a utilitarian basement room at the Roger Williams Park Zoo. The temperature is unnaturally warm, kept constant in the mid 80s. A few steps in, and the unmistakable tremble of a rattlesnake's tail fills the air.
One rattle soon turns into a chorus. The noise is surprisingly loud.
It is in this unremarkable, windowless room where one of the region's most critical - and controversial - wildlife conservation programs is based.
Perrotti, the zoo's director of conservation programs, and others have raised hatchling timber rattlesnakes here for two years, intending them to be the first generation of snakes released on a Quabbin Reservoir island in central Massachusetts. The effort represents the best hope for ensuring long-term stability of the snakes' population in Massachusetts, and perhaps the entire region.
But an intense reaction by residents of the Quabbin area, following press coverage of the introduction effort that quickly spread on social media, threatens to stall - or even put an end to - the project.
"We do care very much about [endangered species], but also question what is the best way and place to protect them," Dan Hammock, a longtime board member of the North Worcester County Quabbin Anglers Association, said during public testimony last May. "We advocate for protecting them in ways that do not threaten to destroy our economy, needlessly endanger our lives, and subject us to possibly losing public access to the jewel of central Massachusetts - Quabbin.”
The introduction project, and the discussion it has generated, make up the latest chapter in a deeply American story of the relationship between people and rattlesnakes.
Populations of timber rattlesnakes in Southern states are generally considered more stable, but centuries of persecutory attitudes and policies have eliminated many northern populations and left many others at the brink. The few populations that once inhabited Canada are now gone, and no one has seen a timber rattlesnake in Maine since 1901. Rhode Island's last population faded out from Tiverton over 45 years ago. There are two known populations in Vermont, and they are on the verge of extinction in New Hampshire. Of the five populations in Massachusetts, one consists of about a half-dozen snakes.
Science has provided biologists with a firm understanding of what puts these populations at risk: intentional human persecution, habitat loss, illegal collection for the pet trade, casualties on roads, restricted gene flow due to isolation, and disease. But informed management efforts have done little to stem the tide of decline.
At about 1,350 acres, Mount Zion Island is the Quabbin Reservoir's largest island. It was selected as the proposed site for the introduction not only because it provides appropriate habitat, but in large part because it is closed to the public and would minimize the chance of people harming the snakes.
"If we put them in an area that is accessible, we're just opening ourselves up to poaching or killing," Perrotti said in an interview. "We feel a viable population is about 100 to 150 snakes. I think success would be if we see those kinds of numbers over the years. We'll be lucky if we can get one to five snakes out a year for the next five to ten years.”
The team hopes to gauge the progress of the program by monitoring the released snakes using radiotelemetry.