Dr. French presented snake plan to advisory committee in 2013
By BRIAN GELINAS
Athol Daily News
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second part of a two-part article. Part 1 appeared in Friday’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.
A portion of those questions and responses appeared in Friday’s edition. Following are
the remaining questions and responses:
ADN: J.R. Greene, a member of the Quabbin Watershed Advisory Council, went on record with the ADN to say to the best of his knowledge the QWAC had not been advised of the project, which DFW stated has been being formulated for at least two years, until only recently when media outlets made it public. However, at the [recent] forum, you stated all agencies listed in your presentation were aware. It has also been said by another contact person that to date the DFW had yet to brief and gain the support of the Water Supply Protection Trust or QWAC. If this has not occurred, why? Also, if the project is two years in the making, why did DFW wait until now to hold a public informational meeting? Is the possible reason because of the desire to maintain secrecy? And in not holding a hearing until now, could it be implied that the popularity factor was actually taken into consideration, knowing the idea likely would be unpopular with locals?
Dr. French: At the public forum, as I assume you heard, I stated that the project had been described to the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Advisory Committee in late 2013, and to the Fisheries and Wildlife Board in early 2014. I gave both of these presentations. I also stated that it is my understanding that the project was mentioned informally by Department of Conservation and Recreation staff in at least two Water Supply Protection Trust meetings, but was not taken up as an agenda item. Individual Quabbin Watershed Advisory Council members have said that they remember DCR staff mentioning the project informally, but that they never discussed it as an agenda item. DCR staff attend these meetings, but I do not. MassWildlife’s two groups believed this project has significant conservation value. They also agreed that it created no impact to the public, since the biological requirements of the snakes will confine them to an island already closed to the public, and that there would be no need to alter any existing public access policy. No significant policy concerns were identified.
It has been my understanding that DCR’s informal conversations with individual members of their two groups had similar reactions. However, as a result of the recent public interest, I have heard that both groups plan to discuss this project as a formal agenda item at upcoming meetings. When this project has come up, it has been openly discussed. The fact that the project had not yet been formally discussed by either the QWAC or the Water Supply Protection Trust is not particularly surprising, since the expected initiation of the project is still over a year away, at the earliest. It is my understanding that the viral explosion of interest came as the result of someone who was not aware of the project learning about it from a member of the Water Supply Protection Trust, and then broadly disseminating his opposition to the project along with inaccurate predictions of danger to the public, to a number of others, including the ADN. Once your first article was published, the story quickly spread, but unfortunately accumulated more misinformation along the way.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The QWAC is meeting Monday, March 14, at 7:30 p.m., at the Quabbin Visitors Center in Belchertown, with the rattlesnake project as an agenda item.
ADN: Several citizens in attendance at the forum who do not support the project have advised the paper that they tried several times to be recognized to speak, but that the point person with the mic went more to those persons in attendance who it was known were supportive of the project. One gentleman, Mike Krunklevich of Orange, said he was able to speak once but when he raised his hand to speak a second time he was never recognized, and he stated a woman near him was routinely bypassed and never had an opportunity to speak. Was there a plan to “select” a larger number of supportive speakers in order to imply a larger support for the project?
Dr. French: The person who walked the mic around the room was Marion Larson, MassWildlife’s Chief of Information and Education. From my perspective at the front of the room, I did not see any favoritism being shown. Marion used the standard policy for meetings like this to look for people who had not yet spoken to recognize, and allow everyone a chance to speak once before giving people a second, third, or fourth turn at the microphone. There were a number of people who made it very clear that they were opposed to the project, and a few wished to speak multiple times. The fact is that the clear majority of people in the room were supportive. Based on the number of people applauding to numerous statements made by members of the audience either in support of the project or opposed to the project, it appeared that approximately 80 percent were in support, and 20 percent were opposed.
It is particularly interesting that Mike Krunklevich complained about not having a chance to speak. He sat in the front row, aisle seat, and was one of the first people given the mic. Contrary to the instructions to stand in place to speak, he went to the podium and slowly read through about six pages of prepared text. The audience and MassWildlife staff politely allowed him to complete his statement even though much of it was off topic. The woman sitting in the opposite front row, aisle seat, that Mr. Krunklevich mentioned, was given the mic one or two times, and spoke briefly, unrecognized two or three more times. Each had ample opportunity to make statements, and it was clear to everyone in the audience that they did not support the project. There were lots of people who wanted the opportunity to speak, so, as is standard practice, Marion tried to allow everyone to speak once before [going] back to people who had already had a spot at the mic. In the end, I believe that everyone who wanted to make a statement, had the chance to speak at least once.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Krunklevich has advised the ADN he has started a wildlife blog online at wildlifequabbinvalley.wordpress.com.
ADN: J.R. Greene also raised a point in [the] ADN article that [should have] further follow-up. That being, is there documented evidence or other proof that the snakes do not travel far enough distances to inhabit other areas? While it is likely the snakes at the existing sites would have less of a chance to do that because of the human population density, it seems that it could be possible in a largely wild and remote area such as the Quabbin Reservoir.
Dr. French: At the public forum, I provided the distances that timber rattlesnakes travel broken down by gravid female, adult non-gravid female, and adult male. I also provided a figure for the unusual long-distance dispersal. The longer distances are always done by lone adult males. These data are based on studies of timber rattlesnakes in fairly undisturbed forested habitats, so, if there are any biases, they are in favor of greater distances, rather than shorter ones. John R. Green questioned the sources of my information, so, for the best single source, I would suggest you look at the following publication by Dr. Bill Brown who is a well known timber rattlesnake biologist (Brown, W.S. 1993. Biology, Status, and Management of the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus): A Guide for Conservation. SSAR Herp. Circular No. 22.). This publication provides a good summary. Otherwise, I will need to give you citations of numerous scientific journal articles. While there are new research articles published every year, the natural history data I presented has not changed.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Greene, who is also an Athol Public Library trustee, has advised the ADN he has asked the library to shelve a copy of the publication referenced.
ADN: With regard to the RN who brought up the “near miss” non-fatality bites, how is it the DFW, or yourself specifically, were not aware of it before [the forum]? Also, how many non-fatal bites are on record since Colonial times, and what is the protocol for reporting and recording incidents.
Dr. French: Unfortunately, venomous snake bites do not qualify as a “notifiable disease” that states are required to report to the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Therefore, hospitals are not required to report or share these cases with anyone. However, they virtually always do contact MassWildlife or the Department of Public Health, since these cases are so rare. Since I do not have enough specific information to track down the case that was mentioned by a member of the audience at the public forum, I cannot confirm if the woman we know about who was bitten by an unidentified venomous snake in Easthampton was the same woman or not. The case we were aware of included a hospital stay, but the bite was determined to be more consistent with the bite of a copperhead rather than a rattlesnake, so was attributed to a copperhead. Bites from copperheads considered non-life-threatening for a healthy person. I have asked the Department of Public Health to see if they can find any evidence for this possible case. Virtually all venomous snake bites in the Northeast become big news since they are so rare, but it is certainly possible that we could miss one.
ADN: The RN also noted that at the time the elderly woman who was bitten in Easthampton went to the hospital, the hospital had no antivenin. Is there a protocol in place to ensure hospitals in areas where snake populations exist have the proper antivenin on hand in the event of a bite? Will antivenin be on hand at the Quabbin Visitors Center in case of an emergency?
Dr. French: The modern antivenin drug product for North American pit vipers is CroFab®. Since the shelf life of this drug is only two-and-a-half years, the standard operating procedure for hospitals is for the drug to only be stocked by the larger hospitals. In New England, antivenin is usually held in stock in Boston, Springfield, Hartford and Providence. Even at these major hospitals, nearly all of this drug eventually expires and is discarded, rather than used. This is obviously because of the extreme rarity of venomous snake bite[s] in the Northeast. When a bite does occur, patients are either transported to a larger hospital or a supply of CroFab® is sent to the hospital that needs it. While anyone bitten by a venomous snake should seek immediate attention, and the initial affects begin right after the bite, the swelling and progression of symptoms from a copperhead or rattlesnake bite extend over a much longer period of time, allow[ing] for the delivery of antivenin from a different hospital. I have been peripherally involved in at least six venomous snake bites, all relating to someone unlawfully keeping a venomous snake as a pet, or unlawfully capturing one in the wild. Access to antivenin was not a problem in any of these cases. This is not a drug that could be kept and administered at the Quabbin Visitor’s Center. This would be completely inappropriate.
ADN: Finally, there seems to be a contradiction between the two “management recommendations” paragraphs in that in the first there is a desire to educate the public, but in the second it is stated there needs to be secrecy to protect the snake populations. How do you resolve this contradiction?
Dr. French: The two management recommendations to educate the public about endangered timber rattlesnakes, and to keep the locations of timber rattlesnake den sites secret are not at all contradictory. The two native venomous snakes in Massachusetts, the timber rattlesnake and the northern copperhead, are the only two state-listed species for which deliberate killing is a significant cause of their endangerment. So, it is important that the locations that they depend on for hibernation not be widely know[n]. To date, the fact that [it] is a serious criminal offense to harm one has not been an adequate disincentive. This makes it even more important to educate the public so that they are aware that timber rattlesnakes are listed as endangered, they are legally protected, they are a native species, and that they do not pose a measurable threat to the safety of hikers and other visitors to state lands. The [submitted] DCR flier is one example of this educational effort. Concerns that site-specific information from the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Database could be used to destroy or exploit listed species or their habitats was the reason that these data were excluded from the state public records law.
Two other follow-up questions were asked after the responses above were received. No reply has been received as of the writing of this article. Those questions were:
- Greene noted a “snake researcher” was bitten by a rattlesnake in Sheffield in July 2009, and there was an article in the Berkshire Eagle on the incident. Are you aware of this incident?
- A contact with one of the organizations mentioned above has said it was stated at a meeting of that organization by a representative of the DFW that the breeding of rattlers is for other existing denning sites and “extras” will be seeded on Mt. Zion, and questioned why start a colony where they do not now exist? The contact also suggested the Mt. Zion placement is just an experiment. Comments?
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 https://www.change.org/p/gov-charles-baker-stop-timber-rattlesnake-quabb….
It has also been determined there is an online petition in support of the project, which can be accessed athttps://www.change.org/p/tom-french-help-the-timber-rattlesnake-project-….
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