Quabbin Rattlers, Crown Point Cat

If you thought that rattlesnake controversy snuggly coiled around Mt. Zion, a secluded Quabbin Reservation island targeted for future viper stocking, had slithered off to some deep, stony crevice called Devil’s Den, think again. The dustup is alive and well, with many opinions on both sides of the issue.

Illuminating that fact are two unexpected, rapid fire letters with different spins that recently arrived the old-fashioned way, by USPS snail mail. Why they came now was a bit of a mystery. Not like the subject has been broached here of late, but apparently this space is still associated with a topic capable of producing heebie-jeebies in ophidiophobes, not to mention just plain residents and outdoors enthusiasts.

The first letter, sent by George L. Payzant of Turners Falls, arrived late last week. Enclosed was a Boston Globe Magazine article titled “Relax. Rattlesnakes Aren’t as Scary as You Think.” The piece was written by Ted Levin, author of the pending book “America’s Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake,” scheduled for release in May. Levin’s article, and presumably his book, speaks to the rarity of the poisonous snakes and, even more so, people actually being bitten, never mind dying from rattlesnake bites.

The article basically works as a soothing assurance that MassWildlife’s plan to introduce endangered rattlesnakes to the isolated Quabbin island offers almost zero threat to residents of border towns and/or their abutters, not to mention faraway Pioneer Valley landscapes. Plus, according to Levin, there have been a grand total of two confirmed deaths from snakebites in Massachusetts, the last of which occurred in the 18th century.

Whether or not every record or death by snakebite found its way to Commonwealth town records over the past 400 years, it’s a safe bet that, given the paucity of official records, mortality was rare indeed. And that’s going back to colonial times, when New England rattlers were not uncommon, especially in the southern reaches. Plus, whether people know it or not, and no matter what wildlife officials say, there are already rattlesnakes living among us here in Franklin County and into Quabbin country. Woodsmen know what type of terrain to avoid, particularly talus slopes and high, stony, sunny habitats facing south and west, and are thus able to sidestep potential conflict.

It’s true that the rattlesnake population in these parts has diminished dramatically over the past hundred years due mostly to habitat destruction, highway deaths and wanton destruction of the creatures by folks who encounter and fear them. Although such lethal action is now illegal and punishable by a stiff fine or worse under strict endangered-species laws, you have to suspect that random rattlesnakes are killed upon discovery in places too close for comfort to backyard gardens or sun-drenched woodpiles.

Which brings us to the second letter that found its way here by mail, arriving on The Recorder sports desk over the weekend. The paste-on return address on the upper left-hand corner of the small white envelope read, “Robin L. Bestler” of Shelburne Falls.

Unlike author Levin, Mr. Bestler is obviously opposed to releasing potentially dangerous, poisonous vipers anywhere in the state, fearing the worst, which proponents adamantly claim is unlikely to happen. Yes, he begs to differ, which is more than acceptable in a free country where diverse opinion is said to be welcome. However, to make his case by comparison, Bestler cites the Burmese-Python problems in Florida’s tropical swamps. There, after years of pet owners buying these snakes and other large foreign jungle boa constrictors that grow quite large, become difficult to feed and contain, are thus released, and can grow to more than 20 feet in length, by which time they are capable of eating — gulp — wetland deer. It has become a serious Florida problem that promises only to get worse. Not only that, but the problem may start expanding into the Carolinas and north as the global climate continues to rise.

“I’d like to suggest that those in charge (of the rattlesnake re-introduction) research what’s happening with Burmese Pythons in Florida,” Bestler wrote. “Clearly the pythons are an invasive species that should not have been introduced there. Perhaps it is also true that unless rattlesnakes find their own way back here, they qualify as an invasive species as well.”

While Mr. Bestler’s opinion is understandable and likely shared by many snake-reintroduction foes, comparing native Timber Rattlers to exotic foreign imports like the large jungle snakes sold at mall pet stores near you doesn’t work. “Invasive species” are non-native plants, fish, wildlife and insects introduced into a place where they have no natural history. New England rattlesnakes do not fit that definition. They are native reptiles that have slithered to near extinction, remain here in much smaller numbers and will likely remain and rise in population as our climate continues to warm from worldwide overuse of fossil fuels.

Invasive, non-native species introduced to new habitats can indeed have dire effects on ecosystems. Rattlesnakes, not so. They already live here and lived here harmoniously in Northeastern habitats long before colonial Europeans emigrated to this continent.

Dangerous vipers? Yes, perhaps.

Invasive? Not quite.

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On another note, a couple of emails, one anonymous, arrived last week after trail-camera video of what appears to be a mountain lion, cougar, puma or catamount showed up in upper New York State, near Crown Point on Lake Champlain, and went Facebook viral.

The first email alert, the one from a known, identifiable source, came this way from South Deerfield native and former Recorder scribe Lou Hmieleski, executive editor of the Civil Service Employees Association in Albany, N.Y. Aware that this space had been in the forefront of publicizing New England cougar sightings, he sent it along with a note saying: “What do you think of this? Looks like New York (Dept. of Environmental Conservation) is taking this seriously.”

The online press release from the “Adirondack Almanack” drew about 100 comments — some of which suggested that, because the animal pictured is difficult to size without anything to compare it to, what appears to be a cougar and definitely is a cat walking through a sandy habitat is most likely a large, long-tailed, tawney house cat.”

Hmmmmm? Haven’t we head that assessment before?

Although not impossible, it appears unlikely. For those interested is assessing the film, keyword search “Crown Point cougar” and take a gander for yourself. If so inclined, you can even add to the growing list of comments.

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