Recovery: Saving Timber Rattlesnakes, Why Wildlife Recovery Isn’t a Popularity Contest

You know you've arrived as a naturalist when you support saving timber rattlesnakes. Ted Williams reports.

If you can look with equal appreciation and concern at timber rattlesnakes and, say, New England cottontail rabbits — both gravely imperiled in the Northeast — you’ve arrived as a naturalist.

Most Americans aren’t close to that. But there’s progress in Massachusetts thanks to the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, created in partnership with The Nature Conservancy.

Many states protect their rattlesnakes, but Massachusetts possesses the spine to breed and release them — “headstarting” it’s called. So far, this desperate effort to save New England’s most endangered vertebrate has been limited to two of the five isolated populations. After centuries of persecution and habitat destruction Massachusetts is down to about 200 rattlers. The species is in no better shape elsewhere in the Northeast.

While the Division doesn’t treat its legally mandated recovery plans as classified documents, it doesn’t hold news conferences about them either. It did discuss, with appropriate entities, its plan to create a timber-rattler sanctuary on Mt. Zion — an uninhabited 1,352-acre wilderness island in Quabbin Reservoir (Boston’s water supply). The island, off limits to the public, undoubtedly sustained rattlers in the past. It has a lush prey base and a large boulder field for hibernation. No other hibernaculum exists for miles.

Timber rattlesnake emerging to bask. Photo © Tom Tyning
Timber rattlesnake emerging to bask. Photo © Tom Tyning

In February Peter Mallett, president of the Millers River Fishermen’s Association, got wind of the plan and fired this screed to multiple contacts: “Who are the idiots that think this is a smart thing to do? Doesn’t anyone realize that these reptiles travel through water and land and will multiply? And what about the many people that this will endanger; not just in the Quabbin, but everywhere?” Within hours the story went nationally viral.

Snakes on an Island

No one was more outraged than the state’s most powerful environmental legislator, Sen. Anne Gobi (D-Spencer), chair of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. She promptly ordered an oversight hearing.

When I interviewed her, she offered this: “It puts me in a lousy position when we’re kept in the dark. If the goal is to have a population of rattlesnakes, it would seem to me that the best place would be a controlled setting like a zoo.”

Media hype and misinformation panicked the ecologically challenged. Venom was going to leak into Quabbin’s 412 billion gallons of water, poisoning Boston residents. Snakes would be slithering out of faucets. The ravenous serpents would devour every living thing on the island, then swim to the mainland and overrun the state.

Dark and light morphs. Photo © Tom Tyning
Dark and light morphs. Photo © Tom Tyning

“Snakes on a plane? No, on an island, but just as scary,” screamed a Boston Globe link to hardcopy news alleging that the Division would “breed and raise 150 venomous timber rattlesnakes and turn them loose.” The Division will be delighted if it can breed five a year. Provided they survive and reproduce, natural recruitment might push the population close to 150 by mid-century.

The Globe’s Meredith Warren called the plan a “Jurassic Park-like experiment,” wrongly reporting that “your tax dollars will be paying for snake baby-sitting.” Of the Division’s $6.5 million budget, just $150,000 issues from the General Fund. Each year all Natural Heritage and Endangered Species projects combined cost taxpayers 2 cents each.

In an interview with former TNC biologist and the Division’s current Natural Heritage director Dr. Tom French, CBS Radio’s “Nightside” host Dan Rea continually voiced his hatred of all snakes. He kept asking why we need rattlesnakes, what they’re good for and why the Division is wasting resources protecting them in the wild when they’re dangerous, ugly, unpopular and, if allowed on the planet at all, should be kept in zoos. Somehow French maintained his cool, occasionally breaking through the monologue with clarity and humor.

Not Just About the Cute and Cuddly

The snakes are being headstarted at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island where my wife Donna and I were met by their doting keeper, conservation-program director Louis Perrotti. “We’re out to save the endangered species of New England,” he said. “It’s not just about the cute and cuddly; all species matter. It’s not for us to pick and choose. I want all the spokes in my wheel.”

Juvenile timber rattlesnake being headstarted at Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence, RI. Photo © Donna Williams
Juvenile timber rattlesnake being headstarted at Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence, RI. Photo © Donna Williams

The five babies stretched up against their glass cages, showing us their ivory bellies and chocolate-patched gray-brown backs. “Ugly,” they weren’t. In another year they’ll be big enough to have radio transmitters surgically implanted. If any swim off the island, they can be fetched — a precaution for them, not people.

The feared rattler explosion is impossible. Females rarely bear more than a dozen young; they only start reproducing when they’re about eight and then only every three to five years. Nor would the snakes affect Mt. Zion’s prey base. On a good growth year a timber rattler might consume three rodents, and it can get by on one.

Cornell herpetologist Dr. Harry Greene classifies snakebites as “legitimate” and “illegitimate.” In Massachusetts there have been none of the former for at least 50 years, this despite the fact that 200,000 people annually tramp through one of the rattler refuges, the Blue Hills Reservation.

Greene would classify the late Cotton Dillard’s 45 rattler bites as illegitimate. I met Dillard at the Opp, Alabama Rattlesnake Rodeo (now in its 56th year), an event that taught me much about America’s perception of rattlesnakes. He excelled at “sacking,” bare-handed competition to see who can toss the most snakes into his sack. (The secret to winning, he confided, is “to stay sober.”) Sacking was more than sport to Dillard; it was “witnessing for the Lord.” Whenever he got bitten onlookers could see that the Lord kept him alive; and no, he didn’t think this was about acquired immunity. (And no; he didn’t die of snakebite.)

Yellow morph. Photo © Tom Tyning
Yellow morph. Photo © Tom Tyning

I left Dillard in order to observe the roundup, this for eastern diamondbacks. You insert a hose into the hole of a “gopher” (tortoise, not rodent), holding the end to your ear. If you hear only “poof, poof, poof,” that’s the tortoise, and you move to the next hole. If you hear “poof, poof, poof” and “buzza-buzza-brrrrraaap,” you pour in gasoline, killing the tortoise (and perhaps a cohabitating eastern indigo snake), but driving the rattler up to where you can snag it with a treble hook. Rattlesnake roundups are declining but still popular in the South and West. At the 2015 Sweetwater, Texas roundup participants killed 3,787 pounds of western diamondbacks.

A Welcome and Wise Move

In a letter to the state’s top environmental official, the Conservancy voiced a position that echoed the broader Massachusetts environmental community: “The Conservancy supports the Division’s efforts to conserve the timber rattlesnake by restoring populations in suitable habitat, with consideration for public safety, such as on Mt. Zion Island.” And French’s calm, endlessly-repeated explanations may be quieting some of the caterwauling. Now for every ignorant letter to the editor I see at least two intelligent ones.

NPR aired an interview with French and other snake experts in which enlightened host Audie Cornish asked all the right questions and listened to all the right answers.

Yellow morph basking. Photo © Tom Tyning
Yellow morph basking. Photo © Tom Tyning

So tight is the prose of accomplished naturalist Mark Blazis, who writes the award-winning outdoor column for the Worcester (Massachusetts) Telegram, that he’s able to tell all in a mere headline: “State’s Plan to Save Timber Rattlesnake a Welcome and Wise Move.”

The Quabbin Watershed Advisory Committee has voted in favor of the project. And, ignoring an online petition demanding he nix it, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has stated his support.

But the most encouraging comment I’ve heard issued from none other than Peter Mallett when I interviewed him a month after he’d ignited state and national hysteria: “Well, I’ve changed my mind,” he declared. “I’ve listened to Dr. French, and he makes a lot of sense. I know people freak out at the word ‘snake.’ But this planet was not made just for humans. Every species on Earth needs a place.”

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  1. Danny L. Bryan says:

    Let the powers that be know that I am willing to share my expertise about timber rattlesnakes and dispel much of this misinformation about the species. I have been working with and studying timber rattlesnakes for over 25 years.

  2. Tom Tyning says:

    As usual, a well-thought out piece on real conservation. You have a gift and your writing puts some of the issues surrounding protection of endangered species into clear perspective. The entire environmental community – from regular citizens, children, naturalists, outdoors sports enthusiasts, hikers and butterfly watchers— should be happy to have a voice of reason and clarity. Tom

    1. Rick says:


      Your pictures in this article are fantastic!

  3. Kurt Schatzl says:

    This is excellent and I’ll be happy to share it around on social media. Thanks so much.

  4. Doug Hotle says:

    Very well done, sir!

    Douglas Hotle
    Critical Species Biologist

  5. Levi Stahl says:

    With apologies for the fact that this is promotional: I suspect you’d be interested in a book that the University of Chicago Press (where I’m the promotions director) just published: America’s Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, by Ted Levin. If you’d like to see a copy, drop me a note:

  6. Randall Curtis says:

    I do not believe this snake is endangered. It is only “endangered” within the artificial boundaries of the state of Massachusetts. If it only consumes a few mice in a year, then its recovery will have little positive impact ecologically. I am not certain why such a large amount of money and effort would be spent on this project. Why not work on actually endangered species that have larger ecological impact?

  7. Ted Williams says:

    Hi Randall: I don’t intend this comment as a rebuke. But I’d be interested to learn why you imagine that Massachusetts constitutes an “artificial boundary” for this native species that was quite common in our state before we drove it to the brink of extirpation and why you imagine that increased consumption of native rodents constitutes a “positive” ecological impact.

    1. Randall Curtis says:

      Ted, I meant the boundary is artificial in the sense that it is man-made. The boundary exists only on a map. The rattlesnakes do not know they are in Massachusetts. As far as the snakes are concerned, the border does not exist. The snake is not classified as endangered. My understanding is that there are several viable populations of the snake in other locations. The species will continue for decades into the future. As long as nothing changes, there will be timber rattlesnakes for years to come. The conservation efforts in Massachusetts are not saving the species. The species does not need to be saved.

      Therefore, the conservation effort must be using some kind of reasoning to boost the population of an unendangered species in a particular location. Generally such a move is justified by demonstrating the positive impact of the species on the local ecosystem. For instance, my understanding is that wolves were reintroduced in the Rockies partly to control the overpopulated mule deer. I do not necessarily think controlling the rodent population is beneficial. My point is that the rodent population would seem to be the main place in the ecosystem where the snake would have any kind of impact — whether positive or negative. However, since the snake consumes so few rodents, the snake has no significant impact on the ecosystem — whether positive or negative.

      Therefore, there is no real reason to boost the snake’s population in Massachusetts except for more arbitrary criteria like that the snakes were here when the settlers came here or that we just would like there to be rattlesnakes in Massachusetts. The former criteria is somewhat understandable, but I maintain it is rather arbitrary. The timber rattlesnakes have not been in this area forever. At some point thousands/millions of years ago there were no timber rattlesnakes here. Where did they come from? Did they migrate here? How long have they been here? Maybe the snakes were here when the settlers arrived, but for how long before? What if the snakes had only been there for 100 years or so? What if they are relatively recent visitors to the area?

      In one sense, I get it. If Massachusetts wants rattlesnakes, fine, but I would rather see money and effort spent on saving species that are in danger of total extinction and/or are necessary to maintain a balanced and healthy ecosystem.

    2. Scott Slocum says:

      Right, Massachusetts wants timber rattlesnakes. Minnesota wants timber rattlesnakes, etc..

      The reasons value wildlife aren’t don’t boil down to simple equations of factors like 1) “how many of them are there in other parts of the country?”; 2) “what quantity of rodents do they consume, relative to other rodent predators?”; and 3) “in what period of geological or human history did they exist in this part of the country?”

      If those were the only questions to be answered, then 1) we could count the wolves in Alaska and northeastern Minnesota as “enough” for the whole country; 2) we might be able to find some super-efficient, potentially non-native rodent predator more easily, to take the place of all those we’ve killed off; and 3) we would have to suffer from a serious lack of pre-colonial natural history on all the species we’ve killed off.

      Some of the reasons people value wildlife are embodied in the U.S. Endangered Species Act, including our concerns that threats to a species in one place and time are likely, also, to be threats in others. We want to be good stewards of the earth (as it was created, or as it was given over to our dominion, or as we found it, etc.). We want to avoid extinctions. We see, we appreciate, we believe, etc.

      Variations of this article have probably been written about the Eastern Hognose Snake in Minnesota. All of the intrigue over the inconvenience and financial costs of habitat conservation, and the problem of lower popularity, but fortunately with a bit less of the panic, since the Eastern Hognose Snake is non-venomous. By the way, as I understand it, the best way to avoid snakes (for whatever reason, especially just to “let them be”) is to avoid their generally highly-secluded hiding places. And zip up the tent at night, so you don’t wake up on a cold morning, having been found as a warm spot on your odd choice of a campsite. Or so I did every night on my visit to Big Bend in Texas.

  8. Ed Brown says:

    Fantastic….Anne…good job ! Are you up for another field trip like last year…let me know. Keep up the good work. Ed

  9. Ted Williams says:

    Thanks Randall: Actually, timber rattlers are classified as endangered–by the state. The argument that we shouldn’t bother to save a state-endangered species because it is doing okay in other states has never been accepted by wildlife managers or wildlife advocates. As Aldo Leopold wrote, “Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven; one may never get there.” (I understand that some people might think grizzlies are more valuable than timber rattlers, but that’s not a biological judgement.) And you have it wrong about wolves. They were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park simply because they were the only major natural component missing from that ecosystem. I’m proud to have played a hand in that. “Impacts on ecosystems” is not a reason to preserve biodiversity. We need to preserve timber rattlers not because they do anything for ecosystems, although they do, but simply because they exist. Not sure what you mean when you say “timber rattlesnakes have not been in this area forever.” Nothing has been anywhere forever. Timber rattlers were here long before the European settlers arrived. They spread north after recession of the last glacier 9,000 and 5,000 years ago when temperatures were increasing. At that time there were jaguars in Georgia and armadillos in Virginia. Timber rattlers adapted to decreasing temperatures by hibernating below the frost line; unlike many of our other native snakes that can tolerate freezing. Say the timber rattlers were, as you suggest, only here for the last 100 years. Why do you imagine that would be a reason not to keep them here? The cattle egret wasn’t here 100 years ago; but it is now a native, having arrived on its own. And, as it should be, it is protected.

    1. Randall Curtis says:

      Ted, I am not sure what you mean by “…has never been accepted by wildlife managers…” I may have my history wrong, but didn’t wildlife management practices exist centuries before the settlers came to this continent (e.g., the managers on the estates of noblemen, etc.)? Wildlife management philosophies have changed greatly over time. At one point, “dangerous” predators were intentionally hunted out of areas populated by humans. Now the pendulum has swung back to trying to negotiate peaceful human-predator coexistence.

      With the example of wolves, I am not talking about how the conservationists justified the reintroduction of wolves to themselves. I am talking about how it was justified to farmers and the public. I just did a quick search of the internet, and controlling deer populations appears to be the main justification for reintroducing wolves anywhere. It is the current argument in the UK, for instance. The reason I bring it up is that the issue with reintroducing rattlesnakes is convincing the public it is a good idea to have rattlesnakes around. It is hard to convince the public when the rattlesnake is not providing any significant ecological benefit. Biodiversity may be a good enough reason, but the family with small children and two dogs living near rattlesnakes may not be easy to convince. It’s a lot easier to convince the family if you can point to some clear ecological benefit.

      Your discussion of the history of the rattlesnake (very interesting, thank you!) demonstrates the basic point I was making: animal populations ebb and flow in numbers and in location. Calling a species “native” is ultimately a subjective, arbitrary judgment. The basic assumed motivation underlying the drive to conserve the rattlesnake is that the arrival of the settlers in New England disturbed the ecosystem to such an extent that the rattlesnakes have been driven out of their “native” territory. In other words, we have arbitrarily decided that the biodiversity in Massachusetts should at least reflect the biodiversity that was here when the settlers arrived (with maybe a few added species that have shown up since). Why did we pick that time period? Why not seek to achieve and maintain the biodiversity of 1,000 years ago or the biodiversity of 1957? What is wrong with the current array of animals in Massachusetts?

      Again, if Massachusetts wants rattlesnakes, then fine. If Massachusetts thinks rattlesnakes ought to be well-represented in their cross-section of ecological biodiversity, fine. My point is simply that such a decision is relatively arbitrary. As such, it is a hard sell to the public.