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Working group hears plenty of pros, cons on rattlesnake colony

  • Joseph Larson, chairman of the Rattlesnake Review Working group, gives an introductory speech at the March 22, 2017, public meeting in Ware. Jack Suntrup—

  • Jack Suntrup—



@JackSuntrup
Thursday, March 23, 2017

WARE — The Rattlesnake Review Working Group has the thankless job of recommending what the state should do about the timber rattlesnake, an endangered serpent some revere as a New England symbol but nonetheless gives others the shivers.

On Wednesday, more than 100 people showed up at the Knights of Columbus hall here for the third of four public meetings to discuss the issue. About 30 of them spoke during public comment.

The working group — a gathering of state wildlife personnel, elected officials, in-the-know citizens and scientists — is supposed to offer recommendations to the state Fisheries and Wildlife Board about how the officials should manage the endangered species in general.

But public comments mostly centered around a now-shelved plan to establish a colony of the venomous snakes on Mount Zion, an island in the Quabbin Reservoir.

Second in line for public comment was Sue Grant of Northampton.

She spoke — sang? — against the Mount Zion plan. An excerpt of her song, sung to the tune of the old hymn “When I Reach That City on The Hill”:

“Oh that refuge on Mt. Zion,

The citizens, of course, will foot the bill,

There’ll be plenty of venom on Mt. Zion,

When the rattlers reach the refuge on the hill.

No walls can confine them in that refuge,

They may leave it by swimming if they will,

The fishermen will watch the ripples spreading

When the rattlers leave the refuge on the hill.”

Others were less graceful, and more forceful, in their opposition to ideas floated by wildlife officials. One idea is increasing the population of an established colony of rattlesnakes on Mount Tom, which straddles Easthampton and Holyoke.

“Don’t you dare put these snakes on Mount Tom,” said Martin Fedor of Easthampton. “Snakes bite people. We put dogs down that bite people. You people want to save all these snakes? Fine! Put ’em in Vermont, where they’re not near people!”

Protection owed

Laura Cunha, of Easthampton, said the Mount Tom idea, something to which the Holyoke City Council has preemptively voiced its opposition, is attracting less attention than the Quabbin proposal.

“It’s a far cry from putting them on an island at the Quabbin,” she said. “There’s a lot of people who go up on there — a lot of hikers, a lot of children — my daughters, myself, people with pets.”

Plenty of others came out in support of the snakes.

Larry Bandolin, a retired Silvio Conte National Wildlife Refuge manager, was one of the first to speak.

“Here in Massachusetts, the team I headed up captured rattlesnakes, put radio tags in them and tracked their movement to and from their denning site,” he said, adding he supported a proposal made by state herpetologist Mike Jones at last month’s meeting in Belchertown to test out a colony on Mount Zion.

“I support that proposal, particularly the introduction and hope-to-be successful introduction on Mount Zion.”

James Vierstra, of Northampton, said he has loved reptiles since childhood.

“We are in a very safe corner of the globe here,” he said. “We’re not looking over our shoulder for tigers while we’re checking the mail — anything like that. We’ve got these small snakes that pose no threat to us.

“I think we owe it to them to protect them, just as people in India or South America or anywhere protect their large predators,” Vierstra said.

John Smigiel, of Ware, said if state wildlife officials want to establish a colony in the Quabbin, they should do so on an island not connected to land by causeway, as Mount Zion is.

He referred to the baffle dams, constructed of large rocks, that rise out of the water to connect the island to the mainland.

“I know the habitat they like are rocky places to crawl into the rocks,” Smigiel said. “I would assume that would make a good den on a cold winter day when the rocks heat up from the sunlight. … The baffle dam isn’t that far from the mainland.”

Laurie Whitney, of Ware, said the state should focus on boosting populations in the five areas around the state where there are documented rattlesnake populations, not on establishing new ones.

“I think we should invest in the existing dens, help those snakes survive, focus on the fungus, and I don’t want my tax dollars going towards this,” she said, referring to a fungal pathogen the state lists as a threat to the species.

Michael Hofler, of Belchertown, talked about when his daughters were in Girl Scouts and had their meetings in a state park.

“Our message to the children was to be respectful, to be careful, but not to be afraid,” he said. “And I think that’s what I would like to say to people is not to be afraid. We need these rattlesnakes. We need them on Mount Zion. We need them as part of the diversity.”

The panel stayed mostly silent throughout the meeting, but some members voiced concern when Chairman Joseph Larson announced there would be no fifth meeting, saying the more than 300 comments the panel had received from the public had begun to get repetitive.

The group did not vote to set a date for a fourth meeting, but afterward, George Peterson, the commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game, said the last scheduled meeting would likely be the last week of April.

He said the board could opt then to hold a fifth meeting.

Jack Suntrup can be reached at jsuntrup@gazettenet.com.