Quabbin snake island proponents apologize

Officials apologize for public rollout of plan, pledge fresh process

  • Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton speaks during a legislative oversight hearing Tuesday in Athol. RECORDER STAFF/CHRIS CURTIS

  • Tom French, architect of the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Quabbin rattlesnake refuge plan, strains to listen to testimony following his own before a legislative oversight hearing Tuesday in Athol. RECORDER STAFF/CHRIS CURTIS

  • Timber rattlesnakes are native to Massachusetts but were almost wiped out by human predation. State environmental officials are looking for a way to revive the population of the endangered species. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

For the Gazette
Tuesday, May 10, 2016

ATHOL — Apologizing for a lack of public engagement in developing plans to establish a rattlesnake habitat on a Quabbin Reservoir island, state environmental officials pledged Tuesday to restart dialogue on the controversial measure to assist an endangered species.

At a joint House and Senate oversight hearing, Matthew Beaton, secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, offered to convene a broadly representative working group to study the issue and offer a recommendation.

“While the plan was a rational one, built on a foundation of sound science, what that plan lacked was the engagement and support of you: both the Legislature and the public,” Beaton said.

He said the working group, to be formed in cooperation with the legislative committee, would study the proposal and how to preserve rattlesnakes in a way that does not jeopardize safety or access.

“If there remains an elevated level of concern after extensive engagement, we will collectively explore alternative options,” Beaton said.

Fish and Game Commissioner George Peterson and Division of Fisheries and Wildlife Director Jack Buckley echoed Beaton’s support of the science and apology for the political handling of the plan, which became public knowledge and a matter of controversy this winter.

Rep. Anne Gobi, chairing the Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture oversight hearing, asked if the proposal were on hold pending the results of the working group. Beaton said there is no immediate action to be taken, and it could be considered on hold.

Acknowledging fears frequently raised by fishermen, Beaton said that as secretary he will never allow such a project to restrict access. Pointing out the turnover in politically appointed offices, Gobi said general support for the plan matters more that assurances.

Tom French, Fisheries and Wildlife assistant director for the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, repeated the presentation he has given at earlier public gatherings.

“We are looking to try to establish a safety net in one place in the state where timber rattlesnakes can exist without being interfered with by people,” French said.

The plan calls for Massachusetts snakes to be raised from infancy to a more vigorous youth in Rhode Island’s Roger Williams Park Zoo, then released onto Mount Zion to the tune of one to 10 per year for a decade. Mount Zion is a large island in the Quabbin Reservoir, restricted to the public except for a portable toilet for boat fishermen. A Department of Conservation and Recreation official testified Tuesday the plan is to move the toilet down the causeway to another island.

French acknowledged that rattlesnakes swim, and that the island is not a true island but connected to the mainland by a baffle dam. It’s not that the snakes won’t be capable of leaving, French maintained, but that they won’t want to. The snakes imprint on the deep hibernation pits they need to survive the New England winter, have a natural fear of open land and open water, and will have plentiful food on the island. French said an adult timber rattlesnake eats the equivalent of four chipmunks per summer.

The snakes are considered endangered in Massachusetts, and with only five shrinking populations left, French said Zion is the ideal site for a safety net. Humans pose the greatest danger to rattlesnakes, French said, and Zion is the only site owned by the state, already restricted to humans, and with what is almost certainly a historic hibernation site in a boulder field at the northern end. The nearby Prescott Peninsula, also in the Quabbin, is the only plausible alternative, he said.

Five snakes are now maturing in Rhode Island, Lou Perrotti of the Roger Williams Park Zoo said. Perrotti said snakes have gotten a bad rap since the Bible, but if people selected species to preserve based on warm feelings, we would end up with fragmented ecosystems full of butterflies and bunnies.

The committee heard from officials, scientists, and local historians for four and a half hours in the Athol Town Hall auditorium.

North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce Director Mark Wright said that while he personally feels the project has great merit, the public discussion of the “snake island” plan could give the region a bad reputation as it tries to attract tourists. Wright said tourism brings about $25 million to the region annually, big money for a small population, and asked that the working group include an economic perspective.

Heather Bialecki-Canning of the North Quabbin Community Coalition said that after talking to 100 people and finding four firmly opposed, mostly based on misinformation, she and the coalition support the plan.

Several, including Selectman Anthony Brighenti, raised the specter of the long-ago flooding of four towns to create the Quabbin Reservoir as a water source for Boston, still resented by many. Brighenti said that no one went to the coffee shops and barbershops to see what the real people wanted before developing the plan, and demanded a safeguard for recreation and sporting use of the reservoir.

Larry Gates of the Quabbin Fishermen’s Association maintained his opposition to the plan, saying he is concerned about access and safety given what he termed the false information and lack of transparency from the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, told reporters Tuesday that he was hoping the situation could be resolved in a “fair and reasonable manner.”

“People are very sensitive about what happens out there and the state coming in and kind of rolling over them, and that’s I think a big part of what’s going on in relation to the Quabbin as well,” he said.