Opinion of Gen. William Meehan
Ret. Brig. Gen. Meehan, Water supply protection trustee, weighs in on Quabbin snake proposal
By BRIAN GELINAS
Athol Daily News
BELCHERTOWN — Retired Brigadier Gen. William Meehan, of Athol, has weighed in on the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s plan to place endangered timber rattlesnakes on Mt. Zion Island at the Quabbin Reservoir.
Meehan is trustee of the Water Supply Protection Trust, representing the Quabbin Fishermen’s Association and the North Worcester County Quabbin Anglers Association.
In an email communication with the Athol Daily News, State Sen. Anne Gobi (D-Spencer), State Rep. Susannah Whipps Lee (R-Athol), and other state officials and outdoor enthusiasts, Meehan writes, in part: “This may be an exercise in futility (admitted lengthy), but I am going to exercise my right and responsibility as a trustee. Fred (Laskey), you cautioned us last we met to avoid creating a perception that this snake project is another example of ‘Boston’ exerting its will over the people of central Massachusetts. That is exactly what this experiment is! If you/we let this project proceed as planned, your legacy is the creation of an island of pit vipers in the Quabbin because DFW and [the] Department of Conservation and Recreation have failed to do their jobs — stop the killing of snakes in their current habitats.”
Laskey is the executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.
Meehan continued, “Here is my analysis, developed from the recent Orange DFW educational forum, the Quabbin Watershed Advisory Committee (QWAC) meeting and PR from Dr. [Tom] French. Public discourse thus far has been pro and con the snake fix, specifically at Mt. Zion, with substantial facts about timber rattlers and their nature. The problem to be fixed is stated as being a declining population of rattlers in their current five habitats/locations where they have been for two or three centuries, and the chief cause of mortality is interaction with people (road kill, bikers, hikers and the like). The only solution given is to put them somewhere to protect them from people — on an isolated ‘island’ in Quabbin.
“Timber rattlers have been on ‘endangered’ status in Massachusetts for 37 years, with a law saying that to disturb or kill them is a criminal offense. Also, [the] DFW fact sheet states that management responsibility ‘continues to be a need to eliminate trails on public lands near dens and basking areas and implement seasonal road closures in areas of vehicle caused mortality.’ The law seems to be ineffective as a deterrent; killing goes on and few people are brought to trial, and Dr. French confirmed at the QWAC meeting that DFW and DCR need to do a better job of protecting these snakes on roads and trail[s] on public lands (more than 14,000 acres).
“To address the problem, if I recall correctly, Dr. French, in DFW, wrote up a grant request in 2013 which was supported by the National Heritage and Endangered Species Committee and approved by the Fisheries and Wildlife Board in 2014. The several regional states with ‘endangered’ timber rattlers were awarded $500,000 to address the matter. From its origin until recently in 2016, there was no public discourse on the problem, or its solution, until after [the] release of notes between a trustee on the WSPT and a member [of the] DCR Water Supply Policy Office. There may have been public meetings or hearings by DFW with little, if any, prior public knowledge or interest.
“There is a petition working online originated by a lady in Pennsylvania who breeds reptiles as pets for sale, and has accumulated hundreds of supporters from across the U.S. and around the world favoring the Mt. Zion project. Of note, Pennsylvania has an open season to hunt timber rattlers with [a] permit and among some people there timber rattlers are considered a delicacy to consume. A similar petition is online opposing the project.
“From [the] observations of this writer at the two recent meetings, the audiences were 50/50 pro and con. Amongst the pros were local landowners, concerned citizen[s] for [the] survival of the species, and professionals on such matters, including a gentleman who raises rattlers in New Hampshire, a Massachusetts Aquarium representative, a hiker on Mt. Tom, and a gentleman from Armenia who lived and enjoyed recreation among poisonous snakes at home. Among [the] cons were landowners concerned for possible declining property values approximate to Quabbin and fear of snakes approaching their properties; folks concerned for snakes exiting the ‘island’ in the out years and interacting with shore fishermen, bikers and hikers; and many upset that the project has been under way for several years and that populating Mt. Zion with rattlers is a fait accompli without an opportunity for earlier discourse. Amongst the naysayers was a strong sentiment to fix the problem in the 14,000 acres where they have survived for hundreds of years, rather than establish a den of timber rattlers where they don’t now exist.
“Still unknown is the extent of the problem.”
A fait accompli is defined as “a thing that has already happened or been decided before those affected hear about it, leaving them with no option but to accept.”
Meehan also posed the following questions about timber rattlesnakes and the state proposal:
“• How many did we have say five years ago and how many are killed and where each year?
“• What has been done by DFW and DCR to curb mortality at it[s] origin?
“• Dr. French said recently that re-populating tests, similar to the Mt. Zion initiative, have been proven successful; where and how many snakes have been included in the study. Could this work for the long term?
“• What do we know of the grant application as it pertains specifically to Massachusetts?
“• Money committed and to do what?
“• Who approved it and was there any public input?
“• What was DCR’s specific involvement at the onset, and why wasn’t the QWAC and Trust included in the process?
“• Was Mt. Zion a specific settlement site, and with what understandings?
“• What alternatives were considered other than Mt. Zion, and why were they abandoned or set aside? Are there possible den sites to populate in the five current habitats (14,000 acres) where DFW and DCR could protect the snakes from humans?”
The questions above have been sent by the ADN to Dr. French for his consideration.
In discussing the science behind the proposal, Meehan said, “DFW says ‘no measurable risk’ [and] snake[s] have no reason to leave the island habitat. Studies have shown they won’t travel more than 4.5 miles from their winter den site (the island is less than 4 miles in length with plenty of food).
“They must return before winter or they will die.
“For the first four years the snakes will have transmitters embedded so they can be tracked and brought back. If they try to cross water, the eagles will get them.
“No deaths from snake bites since Colonial times.
“• From the Mt. Zion proposed new hibernacula (den site) it is only approximately 0.5 miles to the shore line to the east, and they are excellent swimmers.
“• Timber rattlers can live 30 to 40 years. When the transmitters are removed after four years there is no way to track them, or their offspring born on the island.
“• No registry of snake bites in Massachusetts, thus numbers of bites are unknown.
“• Limited communications (cell phone links) in the Quabbin in the event of a bite.
“• Antivenin is costly and has a limited storage life, thus only major hospitals store it.
“Possible impacts (real or perceived):
“• Tourism to Quabbin watershed [will be] diminished by folks wanting to avoid interaction with snakes.
“• Fear among the region’s residents for poisonous snakes being introduced where they don’t now exist.
“• Fear that the Quabbin will be closed for recreation after the first snake bite.
“• Economic impact on small businesses which rely on tourists, hikers, bikers and fishermen who will avoid ‘Snake Island.’
“• Perpetuation of we/they sentiment among central Massachusetts resident[s].
“• They uprooted people and towns for their water supply. Now they want to populate one of the remaining pieces of land above water level with pit vipers.
“• The Boston establishment is at work again. The project was approved two to three years ago by the Nation Heritage and Endangered Species Committee, followed by the Fisheries and Wildlife Board with no apparent public input. This was followed by the governor stating his concurrence with project before the first formal presentation to folks in central Massachusetts affected by the plan, the QWAC, and the Trust.
“In conclusion, I am angry that this project has been under way for three years and we (the folks in central Massachusetts) have just now been apprised of the solution.
“I am angry that Massachusetts governmental agencies and committees have been involved in this for years and they have not formally consulted with nor informed two principal activities involved with watershed affairs (QWAC was not briefed until March 14, and the Water Supply Protection Trust is not planned to be briefed until May 26).
“I am angry that the presentations thus far only cover the solution, with a passing comment that it is not a fait accompli, and no significant discussion of the alternatives. One of which, Dr. French said, was to re-populate current sites. Dr. French and his boss, Director Jack Buckley, have said they are not making decisions on popularity. A decision is to be made based on survival of the species.
“I am angry that the ‘establishment’ is prepared to implement its solution with no definitive plan from DFW or DCR to stop the killing of rattlers in their current habitats.
“We trustees are the caretakers of wonderful natural and manmade resources of the Commonwealth, and we should not allow the watersheds to become a laboratory for an experiment because several state agencies have failed and are failing to fulfill their responsibilities. DFW should use its grant to start/continue re-populating current habitats and concurrently develop and implement a plan with active DCR involvement to terminate or decrease mortality in the sites where timber rattlesnakes have survived for centuries.”
Regarding the recent QWAC vote on the proposal, taken March 14, Meehan notes it was five in favor, two opposed and three abstained. “No ‘slam dunk.’ Half of the QWAC members were either opposed or unsure,” he said.
In response to Meehan’s email, Gobi wrote, in part: “I appreciate your heartfelt and well reasoned questions and concerns. I share many of the same. My committee is planning an oversight hearing later this spring and hopefully all your questions and concerns, as well as those of many of my legislative colleagues, will be addressed.
Courtesy of Athol Daily News