Spring hearing on rattlesnake proposal planned
By BRIAN GELINAS
Athol Daily News
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first part of a two-part article. Part 2 will appear in tomorrow’s edition.
BOSTON — On the heels of the recent forum in Orange on the state’s proposal to place timber rattlesnakes on Mt. Zion island at the Quabbin Reservoir, Dr. Tom French, of the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife was asked several follow-up questions by the Athol Daily News.
State Sen. Anne Gobi (D-Spencer) and State Rep. Susannah Whipps Lee (R-Athol) were also given the opportunity to comment. Gobi stated, “I am planning to hold an oversight hearing at the State House as I have a number of legislative colleagues whose constituents also have questions and concerns. That hearing will be held late spring.”
Below are some of the questions posed to French along with his responses. Several were asked in reference to two paragraphs of management recommendations found online at http://www.mass.gov/eea/docs/dfg/nhesp/species-and-conservation/nhfacts/crotalus-horridus.pdf. The paragraphs read:
“Increasing public and conservation land holdings in prime timber rattlesnake habitats continues to be an important conservation strategy for this species. In addition to land protection, educating the public and residents local to timber rattlesnake populations with biologically accurate information remains important; highlighting the importance of timber rattlesnakes as beneficial native ‘top predators’ of the deciduous forest communities is key.”
“Along with having a high level of protection of dens and basking sites, maintaining a level of secrecy about their locations is important for restricting human access to key habitat features in order to avoid disturbing and stressing snakes. Additionally, there continues to be a need to limit and eliminate trails on public lands near dens and basking areas and implement seasonal road closures in areas of high vehicle-caused mortality.”
A portion of the questions and responses follows (the remainder will appear in tomorrow’s edition):
ADN: It is reported by DFW there are five populations in the state. A level of secrecy is desired, but how many acres of public and conservation land holdings have been added to current habitats to protect the snakes in places where they have been surviving since Colonial times?
Dr. French: The total acreage of potential timber rattlesnake habitat owned and managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and the DFW in Massachusetts is about 14,518 acres. Most of this potential habitat is part of two DCR state reservations, two DCR state forests, and three DFW wildlife management areas. Unfortunately, most of this potential habitat is no longer actually occupied because of continuing declines of the species. The greatest portion of this land was summer foraging habitat, including areas that are at the outer limits of the summer dispersal of adult males where the density is very sparse, the period of occupation is very short, and the presence of a snake does not occur every year. So, this is the maximum potential habitat ever used, even for a short time. Although trails are occasionally re-routed, and sections may be closed for many environmental reasons, including avoidance of state-listed rare species, none of this property has been restricted to public access. Many years of managing these lands has shown that the presence of copperheads and rattlesnakes is not a measurable public safety issue. Keep in mind that a large portion of the Appalachian Trail from southwestern Massachusetts all the way to north Georgia is excellent timber rattlesnake habitat with tens of thousands of hikers and many thousands of rattlesnakes sharing the same ridges.
ADN: Is there any additional habitat where they are now that can be used for the placement of the project’s Rhode Island raised snakes?
Dr. French: The six juvenile snakes currently being head-started can always be released back into the Massachusetts population from which they came from. However, there are no other locations in Massachusetts that are already restricted from public access, are large enough to support an entire self-sustaining population for perpetuity, and have the relatively rare landscape feature that is essential for rattlesnakes to survive the winter. Remember, that these snakes being raised in Rhode Island came from our own Massachusetts populations.
ADN: It is stated “there continues to be a need to limit and eliminate trails on public lands near dens and basking areas and implement seasonal road closures in areas of high vehicle-caused mortality.” Beginning with the Blue Hills snake population and touching on the other population sites, how many or how much of the trails in those areas have been limited or eliminated on public lands?
Dr. French: One of the park roads in the Blue Hills is responsible for more timber rattlesnake deaths than any other road in the state. This is a DCR road rather than a DOT road, so it was built as a low-use parkway and was historically closed each night, mostly for park security, but also to protect the snakes which are most often killed after dark. These evening road closures have periodically been reinstituted, but not yet as a consistent policy. While rattlesnakes are also occasionally killed on other roadways, Chickatawbut Road is the only one proposed for any closures, and only after dark.
One trail in the Blue Hills has been closed in recent years that passed right across a traditional timber rattlesnake and northern copperhead basking area and nursery site, and had a history of unlawful mountain bike use. This trail had been created ad hoc by the public and had never been planned, but did eventually make it onto the hiking trail map. This trail was officially closed by DCR in 2015 and was considered unnecessary because of the high density of trails in that part of the park, including very nearby parallel trails just north and just south of this one. There is a second short trail spur in the Holyoke range that is also being closed for similar reasons. This trail spur is on private property. It was created without the owner’s permission and it goes from a larger unauthorized trail which is not being closed, to a traditional timber rattlesnake nursery site where the snakes have frequently been disturbed. Another section of trail in the Holyoke Range has been re-routed around a traditional northern copperhead nursery area. Of course, for rare plants and other state-listed species, trails are routinely re-routed in order to avoid harm.
ADN: It is the DFW’s assertion the Quabbin project should not come down to a popularity vote and the law is on the side of the DFW, and the purpose is to protect the snakes from human contact. Given the latter point, have any significant restrictions been set in place on the other public sites with regard to public access and vehicular traffic? If not, why?
Dr. French: The conservation of state-listed imperiled species is an established legal responsibility and public policy. The ecological value of each species is the same, and the state wildlife agency’s mission is to conserve all of our native species whether they are popular or not. Our management decisions need to be science driven. In the case of the plan to establish a population of timber rattlesnakes on Mt. Zion island at Quabbin Reservoir in order to have a population that can be protected from the public, the science is clear. Mt. Zion is large enough to support a self-sustaining population of timber rattlesnake with the snake’s annual movement cycle anchored to the boulder field on the north end of the island for winter hibernation. While there have been numerous scenarios put forth to explain how these snakes will leave the island, grow in numbers, and bite hikers, these scenarios are inconsistent with the scientific facts. The facts support MassWildlife’s original determination that this project will provide significant added security to ensure timber rattlesnakes do not disappear from Massachusetts, by allowing a population to exist in a location that the public is already not allowed to go, and while presenting no impact to the public either in regards to safety or public access.
ADN: Maps of the Blue Hills area and Mt. Tom area do not indicate denning sites, nor is information provided to advise the public of the possible contact with rattlesnakes. In your opinion, should there be?
Dr. French: Trailhead signs in portions of the Blue Hills inform hikers that they may encounter venomous snakes on the trail and warns them that it is unlawful to harm one. Off and on, over time, similar signs have been placed at trail heads on Mt. Tom. These signs are intended to guarantee that all hikers know it is a criminal offense to harm a timber rattlesnake or a northern copperhead. It is not necessary to place signs for the purpose of public safety, since the risk of being bitten is already several decimal points to the right of zero. The Blue Hills alone hosts over 200,000 visitors a year and for at least the past 50 years, for which there are good data, there has not been a single bite from a rattlesnake. The locations of den sites would definitely not be published since the timber rattlesnake and northern copperhead are the only endangered species in Massachusetts for which deliberate persecution and killing plays a significant role in their endangerment.
The ADN has been advised that a petition seeking signatures for the purpose of stopping the placement of rattlesnakes on Mt. Zion and ensuring DCR accountability to taxpayers has been started online. It can be accessed at Text ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/SolidText ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/Solid$ID/NothingText ColorText Color$ID/NothingText ColorText Colorhttps://goo.gl/1UvwHg.
It has also been determined there is an online petition in support of the project, which can be accessed at Text ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/SolidText ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/Solid$ID/NothingText ColorText Color$ID/NothingText ColorText Colorhttps://goo.gl/cZH1Pe.
As of the writing of this article, the anti-snake project petition had 750 supporters, while the pro-project petition had 1,000.
Courtesy of Athol Daily News