Rattlesnake debate at Quabbin renewed at Belchertown meeting

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

BELCHERTOWN — The timber rattlesnake is in the same league as the great white shark and the brown recluse. They are not friendly. They are not cuddly. And they may bite.

That makes the task of saving the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), an endangered species, all the more difficult. “It’s not a very charismatic species,” said Alan Richmond, an herpetologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Still, the serpents were on the mind Tuesday night at a meeting of the Rattlesnake Review Working Group at the Belchertown Town Hall. The group is tasked with reviewing conservation strategies related to the rattlers and providing recommendations to the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

As it stands, there are only five populations of the timber rattlesnake in Massachusetts, two of which the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has deemed are at a “very high risk of imminent extirpation.”

Against that backdrop is the question of where, if anywhere, more rattlesnakes would be welcomed. One proposal, shelved last year, included starting a population on Mount Zion, an island in the Quabbin Reservoir connected to land by a causeway.

The idea drew backlash from local residents, anglers and others. But the possibility the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife would forge ahead with such a plan is why many interviewed attended Tuesday’s meeting.

The meeting, which drew about 60 people, was not open to public comment, and that drew scattered jeers at points during the 90-minute discussion.

Bill Pula, the recently retired regional director of the Quabbin and Ware River Watersheds, wore a Gadsden Flag pin, a nod to the snake’s native status in New England. He said he was in favor of the snakes being relocated to the island.

Pula said most concerns fishermen have are not about the rattlesnakes per se, but whether access to the island and surrounding waters would be further restricted.

Still, “Mt. Zion is an isolated spot. … I can’t think of a more isolated place in the state.”

Pula was right. Skeptics were worried about access.

Dan Hammock, of Erving, serves on the working group and is a member of the Quabbin Fishermen’s Association.

“We want to help them survive,” he said of the snakes in an interview, but questioned whether the snakes could ever return to their original status before centuries of human activity drove down their ranks.

“Do people really want them spread all around?” he asked.

He wondered what would happen if a snake bit a hiker or boater. Because of the snake’s protected status, “the people are gonna be the one’s kicked out, not the snakes.”

Hammock also was concerned the snakes would swim away from the island. Vincent Tumal, 72, of Florence, said in an interview he often fishes in the Quabbin and was worried about loose snakes and the possibility some gates could close to fishermen.

“I’m worried about if they have an antidote (for snake bites),” he said. “I’m here simply as a concerned fisherman.”

Marcy Schwartz, 68, of Belchertown, said she was in favor of snakes on Mount Zion.

“I trust the experts,” she said. “If they say it’s the right place to put them, it’s probably OK.” She also voiced concern the media was sensationalizing the story.

“If they show another picture of a rattlesnake this big,” she said, holding out her hands out wide, “I’m gonna throw something at the television.”

Richmond said the rattlesnake discussion takes an unhealthy turn as soon as Mount Zion is mentioned. He said residents should change the frame of the conversation to how to save the species in general. “The big deal is how do we conserve the species in Massachusetts,” he said.

Michael Jones, the state herpetologist, told the group the species faces several challenges including harassment from humans, habitat fragmentation and death via vehicle.

“It is conceivable to move forward with a phased restoration effort that’s different than what we’ve been discussing,” he said.

First, the state would identify a suitable place for a restoration, then “head start” snakes from stable populations for two years, and release five to 10 snakes with radio transmitters attached. “At the end of that pilot year a group could reconvene to evaluate the results of that initial phase,” he said.

The Belchertown meeting was the second of four meetings. The group voted to schedule the next meeting for 6:30 p.m. March 22 at the Knights of Columbus in Ware, 126 W. Main St.

To take a surveythat the working group may use in its decision-making process, visit the state Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs website.

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