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Why Massachusetts wants to fill an island with rattlesnakes

Massachusetts officials want to turn an island in the state's largest reservoir into a refuge for the critically endangered snakes, despite alarm from nearby residents.

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A narrow dirt and stone road leads to the off-limits Mount Zion Island, at rear, in the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts, where state officials hope to start a colony of venomous timber rattlesnakes.

Clif Read/The Mass. Dept. of Conservation and Recreation/AP/File

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A proposal to convert an off-limits island in Massachusetts to a timber rattlesnake conservation area has some residents worried, but state officials say the effort will not pose a danger to the snakes’ human neighbors.

The Division of Fisheries and Wildlife plan, endorsed by Gov. Charlie Baker (R), would convert the nearly 1,400-acre Mount Zion island in central Massachusetts’ Quabbin Reservoir into a rattlesnake colony.

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Timber rattlesnakes are native to Massachusetts, but only 200 of the venomous creatures remain in the state, according to Tom French of the state Fish and Wildlife Service.

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“They are afraid that when we put the snakes there, they will spread,” Dr. French told the Herald. “That just won’t happen. That’s just not how this is going to work.”

“We want one place where the impact of people [is] not part of the equation,” he told the Associated Press.

Although the species is listed as endangered in Massachusetts and much of the northeastern United States, people living near the Quabbin Reservoir waters are concerned that establishing a rattlesnake colony near their homes could lead to the animals’ spread. Mount Zion is connected to land via a thin road, plus timber rattlers can swim.

“It is inevitable that someone is going to get bit, and then they are going to close the watershed to the people,” said Mike Krunklevich of Orange, Mass., during a public meeting, reported the Boston Herald. “The priority here is exotic wildlife, and not the people – and that’s a shame. I’m fed up with this.”

“They should just be leaving the Quabbin alone,” added Bobby Curley of neighboring Athol, Mass. “There is a lot of passion from people around here about the Quabbin, and now they are playing it like a biological playground.”

French said that the timid snakes would not pose a threat to people in the area, adding that he had never heard of any rattlesnake bites during his 32-year tenure with the wildlife agency.

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The project page on the MassWildlife website said that the snakes “would have little motivation to leave” the large island, and that they probably could not find suitable habitat if they did stray.

In addition, all rattlesnakes on the island would be equipped with radio transmitters for the first 10 years of the project so they could be located in the event that they left Mount Zion.

Despite widespread reservations, some residents support the proposal as a means to help an embattled species survive.

“The snakes don’t bother me,” said Duncan Burns of Gardner, Mass., who lives about 20 miles from the reservoir. “There used to be snakes everywhere, but now there are only a few left. You can’t go on that 
island anyway. If you go on there, you’re breaking the law.”

The once-common snakes played a role in the Revolutionary War, when they appeared on the Gadsden Flag atop the motto “Don’t Tread On Me.”

The next step in establishing the sanctuary will be an advisory committee meeting at the Quabbin visitor’s center on March 14.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.