State forming group to discuss rattlesnake plan
By BRIAN GELINAS ADN Staff Reporter
ATHOL — Tuesday’s legislative oversight hearing held in Memorial Hall, regarding the state’s plan to place endangered timber rattlesnakes on Mt. Zion island at the Quabbin Reservoir, began with an apology from Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton and Department of Fisheries and Wildlife officials for the initial lack of transparency surrounding the plan.
Beaton also stated a study group comprised of DFW officials, state legislators, and local and regional stakeholders will be formed to review the plan and reach a final determination as to whether placing the snakes on Mt. Zion is the best option. “If there is still an elevated concern, we will effectively explore other options,” he said.
However, when asked by State Sen. Anne Gobi (D-Spencer) and other legislators in attendance, Beaton could not provide a definitive timeline for forming the group or when a decision might be reached. He said the intent was to not implement the study group without full consultation with the legislature and taking into consideration further public input. In response, it was suggested by State Sen. Eric Lesser (D-East Longmeadow) that the formation of the group, and to whom it would report and who would make a final decision, be put in legislative form.
When Lesser asked Beaton if he and DFW officials would accept “no” for an answer if it were decided to nix the plan, Beaton said they would. He said that if the conclusion is that it is best for biodiversity and public safety to pursue another course of action, then that is what would occur. He also assured Gobi that most, if not all, of any sessions held by the study group would take place in the Quabbin watershed region.
Gobi and State Rep. Paul Schmid III (D-Westport) co-chairs the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, which held Tuesday’s hearing.
Regarding the willingness to engage the legislature and hear from the public, Gobi said to Beaton, “It’s unfortunate that wasn’t done six or seven months ago, so we could have headed this off.”
Beaton; Dr. Tom French, assistant director of the state’s DFW’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program; Department of Fish and Game Commissioner George Peterson Jr., and DFW Director Jack Buckley spent nearly half of the four-and-a-half hour hearing explaining the plan in detail and answering questions from legislators. No questions from the public were allowed, although written public input is being accepted by the committee.
As reported extensively in this newspaper and by other regional, national and international news outlets, the four said it is necessary to find a place where a population of the threatened snakes can be established which is essentially isolated from humans, which they say pose the biggest threat to the survival of the species. They explained the five existing populations in the state number only a couple hundred and efforts to preserve them are having little effect other than to keep the populations stable. Mt. Zion is off-limits to the public.
“We’re trying to make the best decisions based on the best science available,” said Peterson.
The four downplayed concerns that there would be contact between humans and the snakes that would be placed on Mt. Zion, despite it being connected to the mainland via a causeway, as rattlesnakes are forest dwellers which do not travel far distances from their hibernation areas. And while they acknowledged the snakes do swim, they said they feel there is little chance the snakes would cross reservoir waters and begin populating areas of the watershed open to the public. “We can say with confidence, there is little to no risk to the public,” said French, who added there have been no fatal rattlesnake bites suffered by humans in Massachusetts in modern times.
The group also promised that the public access now allowed within the watershed would not be adversely affected by placement of the snakes on Mt. Zion, as some in the region fear might happen.
Gobi questioned how that could be guaranteed when the persons holding their positions change over the years, with priorities often changing as a result.
Jonathan Yeo, director of the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Division of Water Supply and Protection, said nothing would change with regard to access. “The division takes great pride in the public access we allow,” he said.
Yeo also stated the state’s snake plan is consistent with the division’s mission to protect water supplies and natural resources.
It was also noted the public access plan is up for review and once revisions, if any, are finalized, the plan would not be reviewed again for 10 years.
Also questioned was the timeline with regard to how certain organizations became aware of the plan, which remained largely unknown to the public until an initial report in this newspaper earlier this year. Yeo stated his division was informed about a year ago. Conservation Director Lou Perrotti, of Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I., said the zoo has known about it for about two years. The zoo is headstarting snakes for the Mt. Zion placement program.
Commenting on the need to preserve endangered species, Perrotti said, “We can’t choose which to save based on fear and speculation.” He said to do so would result in a fragmented ecosystem.
With regard to the plan’s status, Beaton said there are no immediate actions ongoing or pending, with the exception of the snakes being headstarted.
A number of others on Tuesday also offered testimony. Among them were J.R. Greene, Quabbin historian and member of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s Advisory Board; Mark Wright, executive director of the North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce; Dr. Alan Richmond, a biology professor at UMass-Amherst; Heather Bialecki-Canning, of the North Quabbin Community Coalition; David Small, of the Athol Bird and Nature Club and a former DCR employee; Tom Palmer, of Friends of the Blue Hills; and Bob Curley, president of the North Quabbin Trails Association.
Greene questioned whether the placement of rattlesnakes would be in violation of a state regulation prohibiting the taking of any animal into the Quabbin watershed. He also took exception to the length of time the public remained in the dark about the plan. “The fact that this was kept secret as long as it was points to some serious flaws in the process,” he said.
Wright, who said he believes the plan “has great merit,” said it is important to take into account any possible economic impact that could result from placing rattlesnakes on Mt. Zion. He said many area towns have invested greatly in ecotourism. That ecotourism he said is a foundation for economic recovery and economic development. He suggested someone with an economic and public relations background be a part of the study group.
Dan Hammock, of the Quabbin Fishermen’s Association, was curious if any study had been done on how the plan might affect ecotourism. He said that, as manufacturing has left the area, ecotourism has been on the rise. He was concerned people would avoid the Quabbin and the businesses surrounding it, if the snake colony were put in place.
It was noted there are already many snakes in the watershed, including the common water snake and black racers, which are more aggressive than rattlesnakes.
Richmond said the plan is a “great idea,” but added he feels the project is “ambitious and will take considerable effort” to accomplish.
Saying he had talked with many area residents about the project, Small said, “It’s about 90 percent saying they don’t love snakes but understand the nature of the project.” He added that of the hundreds of people he has heard from, only four were definitely opposed.
Bialecki-Canning said she and the coalition support the plan, but more information should be provided, including on how to react if coming into contact with a rattlesnake.
Palmer said he has researched the history of timber rattlesnakes in the Blue Hills, home to one of the state’s rattlesnake populations, and said he could not find a documented bite from a timber rattlesnake since the park’s creation in 1895. He also said he was unable to find any documented fatal snake bites from a rattlesnake in New England ever. “It took me three years to find those snakes [in the Blue Hills]; I made it my personal mission,” he said.
“If you establish a colony of timber rattlesnakes in the Quabbin, I think that would be a selling point,” Palmer said.
Curley provided a copy of a report from Tufts University’s Cummings Veterinary Medical Center stating that his dog Celtz suffered from a venomous snake bite last year. Curley said the report could not specify which species of snake bit his dog, but noted there are only two types of venomous snakes in the state: the copperhead snake and the timber rattlesnake. He said it was hard to believe the copperhead snake could injure his dog to the extent it had suffered as a result of the bite received. He said he did not know how the DFW could dismiss his case and a report from Tufts, which DFW officials did do last year.
Curley said he also felt the DFW was not providing the public with enough information about the project. He said he was more concerned for the fishermen on the water than he was for hikers. “I don’t think there’s enough thought into this,” he said.
Also offering testimony was Dr. Leonard Marcus, VMD, MD, who said, “I’ve had the pleasure of standing within five feet of a timber rattlesnake.”
Marcus said that he saw the snake while in Westfield about 10 years ago in an area where the snakes were being studied to learn more about their motions and travel patterns. “They are the puppy dogs of the venomous snakes,” he said.
He added the snakes are more in danger than people, due to fungal infections that are currently adversely affecting them and other species such as frogs and salamanders.
Marcus also said, “If anyone is going to be at risk, it is the people who are going to be handling them and releasing them. The risk to the general public is very small.”
He added, “The chance [the snakes] could survive in winter on the mainland is almost zero.”
Marcus said he has been in touch with Baystate Medical Center in Springfield and hospital officials stated they keep at least 18 vials of antivenin on hand at all times. Currently, they have 28 vials that cost about $3,000 each. If someone does suffer a timber rattlesnake bite, that person should survive if given the first dose of antivenin within four to six hours of the bite.
Larry Gates, of the QFA, said, “We’re not against timber rattlesnakes; what we’re against is the lack of transparency and information from the DFW.”
Gates added there is always the possibility someone could ignore Mt. Zion “stay away” warnings and access the area and suffer a snake bite. Given the remoteness, it could be hours before that person is found, he said.
Courtesy Athol Daily News