Senate OKs amendment in proposed ’17 budget
for 1-year moratorium on Quabbin snake plan
By Brian Gelinas,
ADN Staff Reporter
(June 2, 2016)
BOSTON — The State Senate last week approved attaching an amendment to the proposed fiscal year 2017 budget that would place a one-year moratorium on the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s plan to place endangered timber rattlesnakes on Mount Zion Island at the Quabbin Reservoir.
The amendment, filed by State Sen. Eric Lesser (D-East Longmeadow), was approved by a voice vote without a roll call, Beacon Hill Roll Call’s Bob Katzen told the Athol Daily News last week. It also calls for the formation of a study group by July 31 to review the plan.
Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton proposed the formation of such a group at the legislative oversight hearing held in Athol’s Memorial Hall in May. At that time, Beaton said the group’s purpose would be to review the “merit, location and timeline” of the plan to place rattlesnakes on Mount Zion.
Lesser’s amendment expands the group’s mission to include the group recommending “the best practices to protect existing timber rattlesnake populations” and submitting a report to the legislature by year’s end.
At the oversight hearing in Athol, Lesser called for the idea of a study group to be put into legislative form to, in part, ensure the group would be answerable to a higher authority.
Residents in the towns surrounding the reservoir are split on their support for, or opposition to, the plan. Those supporting the plan say they recognize the importance of protecting the species, which is designated as endangered in Massachusetts, but thriving elsewhere in the country, such as in Pennsylvania. Those opposed cite safety concerns and express a fear the venomous snakes could migrate from Mount Zion, which is off limits to the public, to areas of the watershed accessible by the public and pose a snakebite risk.
In filing the amendment, Lesser sided with the opposition, saying there are significant concerns with regard to public safety aspects of the plan and its possible effects on the public’s access to the watershed area. He also noted the one-year moratorium would allow for the study group to garner input from residents local to the Quabbin watershed area. He said in a statement the amendment is “necessary and prudent given the many unanswered questions that local residents have about this proposal.”
State Sen. Anne Gobi (D-Spencer) and State Rep. Paul Schmid III (D-Westport) co-chair the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, which held the oversight hearing in Athol. Lesser, while not a member of the committee, represents a number of towns in the Quabbin area in his role as senator.
Asked last week for comment on the amendment, Gobi said, “I spoke about it on the Senate floor. I did not cosponsor the amendment because I had received a letter from Secretary Beaton in which he put in writing what he talked about at the oversight hearing in creating a working group to look at this issue in more detail.”
Commenting on the plan to place rattlesnakes on Mount Zion, Gobi said, “My position has never changed. I believe in protecting all endangered species and I would like to see the emphasis put on protecting the timber rattlesnake in the five colonies they currently exist and doing everything to protect them and preserve them in those areas instead of creating a new site. I am concerned that, if the emphasis is on creating a new site, not enough will be done to protect the timber rattlesnakes that currently are living in dens across the state.”
While the amendment calls for a one-year moratorium, after the effective date of the act, Dr. Tom French, of the DFW’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, has said any placement of timber rattlesnakes on Mount Zion would not occur in the immediate future. He has said the snakes that would be placed on the island are currently being “headstarted” at Roger Williams Zoo in Providence, R.I., and they were birthed from snakes taken from existing dens in Massachusetts.
French has also stated the Mount Zion plan is funded, in part, by a multi-state grant received to combat a fungal disease threatening various species of snakes, including the timber rattlesnake. A copy of that grant was recently obtained by the Athol Daily News. The grant was to have expired on Sept. 30, 2015, but has been extended through May 30, 2018.
Massachusetts is the lead state for the grant, for which French has previously stated he wrote the grant application.
With regard to the placement of snakes on Mount Zion, it is noted in Paragraph D on page 12 of the grant application “all snakes headstarted as part of this proposal will be released into the population from which they originated.”
Asked whether that clause would negate the proposal to place the headstarted snakes on Mount Zion, French said Thursday morning, “The grant application was a proposal for the expenditure of grant funds. Only two rattlesnake headstarting projects were under way during the grant period, and both of them involved releasing headstarted snakes back into the populations from which they originated in order to maintain the integrity of the local genetic profile. The first headstarted snakes for the Quabbin rattlesnake project were scheduled to be released after this grant period was over. So, the description of projects to be funded by the grant do not negate or contradict the Quabbin rattlesnake plan.”
courtesy Athol Daily News