or an injured fang. Actual bites on humans are exceedingly rare
and almost always the result of snakes’ being handled, provoked,
or stepped on. In Massachusetts, only three known deaths have
been attributed to rattlesnakes, all occurring before the mid-nineteenth century and all likely the result of primitive medical
treatments following the bites. In modern times, despite the
proximity of some dens to heavily used hiking trails and populated areas, there have been just a handful of bites – none fatal.
In Vermont, there are no definitive records of fatal snakebites.
Once widespread throughout the forests of the Northeast,
timber rattlesnakes have declined markedly since colonial
times. They have been heavily persecuted by human hunters
motivated largely by bounties that were offered as recently
as the 1970s in Vermont and New York. Even after receiving
protection in many states as an endangered or threatened species,
rattlesnakes have continued to suffer from illegal killing, motor
vehicle mortality, and collection for the exotic pet trade. At the
northern end of their range, rattlesnakes depend on deep, rocky
dens to survive cold winters, a specific habitat requirement that
makes them vulnerable to development and easy targets for
hunters and poachers, some of whom have taken thousands
of snakes. Yet another concern is a recently discovered fungal
disease that has affected several snake species, though its overall
effect on timber rattlesnakes is still being investigated.
Today, rattlesnakes have been extirpated from Maine, Rhode
Island, and Canada; just two known populations remain in
Vermont, and New Hampshire hosts a single small colony now
suffering from inbreeding and the fungal disease. Connecticut’s
overall population has declined by an estimated 85 percent from
historic highs. In Massachusetts, just five colonies with an estimated 200 individuals remain. Two other Bay State populations
have disappeared in the past 30 years, and two of the remaining
sites are in imminent danger of being destroyed.
Fear and LOATHING
As part of a federally funded project to study species affected
by fungal disease, scientists at the Massachusetts Division of
Fisheries and Wildlife have been working on a rattlesnake
conservation strategy that includes a proposal to establish a new
population in a fully protected area.
According to Natural Heritage and Endangered Species assistant director Tom French, a new colony would add much needed
genetic diversity and serve “as a safety net where [rattlesnakes]
Snake stigma: Timber rattlesnake populations are declining precipitously in New
England, but public outcry doomed plans to establish a colony at Quabbin.