Opinions vary about state’s plan to stock island at Quabbin Reservoir with endangered rattlesnakes

Last modified: Tuesday, February 23, 2016

ORANGE — Some people who frequent the Quabbin Reservoir view with suspicion the state’s proposal to stock an island there with endangered rattlesnakes.

The Division of Fisheries and Wildlife proposal calls for the breeding and re-introduction of 150 timber rattlesnakes to an as-yet unnamed large island in the Quabbin Reservoir. The state lists the snakes as endangered in Massachusetts due to traditional persecution and loss of habitat.

Rodney Flagg, owner of Flagg’s Fly and Tackle in Orange, said his customers have been all fired up about this for weeks.

“Crazy. I’ve been hearing more about rattlesnakes lately,” he laughed. Flagg said there have always been timber rattlesnakes around here, but at 78 he’s spent half his life in the New England woods hunting, fishing, trapping and guiding and has never seen one. The prevailing feeling among his customers is that the state is trying to keep people away from the reservoir, Flagg said.

Rumors of cameras going up around the reservoir give him the same uneasy feeling, and the same concerns about expenses.

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation is “lucky I ain’t the governor; they’d all be looking for a job tomorrow,” Flagg said.

Robert May Sr. of Athol lives near the Quabbin and has fished it for 52 years. May said he plans to start doing some research, but he isn’t familiar with the habits of timber rattlesnakes.

“Snakes swim and there’s an awful lot of people that walk the Quabbin during the off-season, including myself for exercise,” he said.

He expects the snakes would eventually migrate from the island, at which point he would be concerned for the many who walk and bird-watch there. For the moment, though, he has only seen rattlesnakes on television and wants to learn more.

On the other hand, May said there was a rumor going around two years ago in the fishing community that the Department of Conservation and Recreation had released rattlesnakes, and he shares the general distrust of the state’s intentions. “If they had their way they wouldn’t let us down at all,” May said. “Since (the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority) took over, it’s plain hell.”

Several agencies and committees have authority over the Quabbin. Retired Brig. Gen. William Meehan II of Athol is one of five trustees on the Water Supply Protection Trust, created by former state Sen. Stephen Brewer. The trust also includes representatives from environmental affairs, the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority and its advisory board, as well as a local historical representative and Meehan who represents the two nonprofit fishing associations concerned with the Quabbin. Meehan said the land and islands of the Quabbin are the trust’s jurisdiction, working with the Department of Conservation and Recreation and the MWRA.

That any of these organizations have any interest in sealing off the Quabbin to recreational use is untrue, he said.

“There is no truth, no truth at all, to any effort on the part of any organization, establishment with authority, to close the watersheds, not just the Quabbin but any other for recreational use,” Meehan said.

Meehan said he fought successfully to open the Quabbin to fishing seven days a week during the season. He also takes responsibility for starting what has become the avalanche of snake conversation by spreading the word to the groups he represents, and he’s not thrilled with the resulting attention.

“This thing is like pole-vaulting over a mouse turd. There’s some people who want to make it of some monumental interest that is not deserving of the attention that it’s getting,” Meehan said, adding he had no problem with the pilot program when he heard of it.

“They’re putting them on an island, and the islands are off-limits. You want to get your ass bit by a snake, then step on the island,” he said. “I am an environmentalist. I do a lot of hunting and a lot of fishing, and we have an obligation to protect endangered species, and this is one of them.”

The proposal is supported by wildlife biologist Thomas French of the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, and Meehan said he trusts the judgment of the experts relative to the danger to the human population.

Meehan said cameras are going up around the Quabbin, but only to monitor those areas that are off-limits, primarily to stop mountain bikers from damaging the woods and creating illegal trails. He stresses that this is not part of a plan to cut access, and cameras are not to be aimed at legal users.

“I won’t let us do anything dumb. I won’t let anybody, within my ability to do so, restrict us from having complete recreational access, within reason,” he said.

To Meehan, residents have as much power as they could want in the ultimate decision, as constituents with the power to move their legislators to block the plan. He hopes residents will be reasonable and listen to the experts.

Bobby Curley, president of the North Quabbin Trails Association, and Peter Mallett, founder of the Millers River Fishermen’s Association, are organizing a public forum on the topic at 6 p.m. Feb. 17 in the Trails Association headquarters inside the Orange Innovation Center at 131 West Main St.

Curley is ambivalent about the proposal. Mallett is not concerned about the direct threat possibly posed by the snakes, but believes the known presence of an endangered species could imperil access.

“My main thing is they’ve been wanting to shut the Quabbin down for people for years, and what a perfect opportunity,” Mallett said.

Mallett added that he believes the snakes are here anyway, they just aren’t reported by the people who find them. The people who find them, he said, giving the example of a friend’s discovery during a basement renovation, kill them out of fear for pets and children and keep quiet to avoid legal complications.


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