Arizona group backs Quabbin snakes

For the Bulletin
Friday, June 24, 2016

BELCHERTOWN — An Arizona-based nonprofit is leading a coalition of biology and conservation groups to persuade the Massachusetts Legislature to remove a budget amendment that would stall release of timber rattlesnakes into the Quabbin Reservoir.

Advocates for Snake Preservation is calling on Massachusetts residents to urge their lawmakers to remove an amendment state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, filed to require a one-year moratorium to delay the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s plan to breed and reintroduce 150 snakes to Mount Zion Island at the Quabbin Reservoir.

The Athol Bird and Nature Club and the Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust are among the organizations in the coalition, which is dedicated to improving public perception of snakes.

Melissa Amarello, one of the advocacy group’s founders and its director of education, said snakes are stigmatized reptiles feared by people who do not understand them.

“Among the general public they are often disliked and a lot of people are afraid of snakes,” she said from her office in Tucson. “That makes it really hard to do conservation with a species, when people don’t like them.”

Amarello said Massachusetts’ plan is sound and based in science. She said timber rattlesnakes play a vital role in their ecosystem, most notably by eating small mammals that can carry diseases, such as Lyme disease, which are harmful to humans.

Lesser said he does not dispute the science behind the Fisheries & Wildlife division’s plan, but rather he objects to what he views as another example of the state making a decision without considering the opinion of people in central and western Massachusetts.

“This decision was concocted in Boston and thrust upon our communities without sufficient input,” Lesser said, adding that he has a perfect voting record on environmental issues.

Lesser said this is a public safety issue and the impact on tourism must be considered, as the Quabbin Reservoir is a huge driver of the region’s economy. He also said it is easy for an Arizona-based organization to advocate for the reintroduction of snakes in a community it does not share.

But Amarello said the Grand Canyon State is no stranger to snakes, as 15 species that are not the timber rattlesnake exist there. She also said Massachusetts has only five small isolated populations of timber rattlesnakes, totaling fewer than 200 individual snakes.

She said the Quabbin Reservoir’s rock structure and quality vegetation mimic the habitat of timber rattlesnakes elsewhere.

Amarello encourages Massachusetts residents to visit www.LivingWithSnakes.org to sign an online petition calling on the Legislature to remove Lesser’s amendment from the budget bill for the fiscal year beginning July 1. 

Lesser said that his amendment was approved in May. The House and Senate have each approved their own version of the budget and the differences are being worked out in a conference committee which will present a final document to the Legislature.