Quabbin advisory board backs rattlesnake island plan

  • Thomas French, standing, describes the rattlesnake island plan to the Quabbin Watershed Advisory Committee Monday night in the Quabbin Visitor Center in Belchertown. Recorder staff/Chris Curtis Chris Curtis—Recorder staff

For the Bulletin
Wednesday, March 16, 2016

BELCHERTOWN — A regional board tasked with advising the state in matters pertaining to the Quabbin has voted in favor of the rattlesnake island plan, with a minority opposed.

The 45 seats set out for spectators filled quickly Monday night for a meeting of the Quabbin Watershed Advisory Committee, usually sparsely attended, with spectators eager to weigh in on the plan introduce a population of endangered timber rattlesnakes to the reservoir’s largest island, Mount Zion.

The committee is composed of 11 members representing local, regional and statewide sporting, outdoors and environmental organizations with a mandate to advise the state Department of Conservation and Recreation relative to sometimes competing questions of recreational use and environmental matters.

With 10 voting members at the table and one alternate, the vote was 5-2 in favor, with several abstaining.

Thomas French, assistant director of Division of Fisheries and Wildlife for the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, repeated much of the presentation given at a public hearing in Orange last month.

This week’s meeting was not a public hearing, but Chairman Tom Berube allowed questions and comments from the audience, which included both residents and interested academics. Most left at the close of the discussion before the vote.

Several members of the advisory came out for and against the proposal early in the meeting.

Elisa Campbell of the New England Sierra Club and Tom Lautzenheiser spoke for the plan. Larry Gates of the Quabbin Fishermen’s Association and Anthony Brighenti of the North Worcester County Quabbin Anglers Association spoke against it on behalf of their respective boards, as did Dennis Duguay, an alternate representative.

James Boyko of the Swift River Valley Historical Society said his board had pondered it and decided to stay out of it, but felt it is unlikely to cause harm.

Statements both for and against the plan were usually met with applause.

The state has already begun gathering endangered timber rattlesnakes from different Massachusetts populations to breed, the young to be fostered and introduced to Mount Zion at a rate of one to ten per year for a decade, beginning in 2017 at the earliest.

Mount Zion is attached to the mainland on the reservoir’s eastern side by a baffle dam at the opposite end of the island from the proposed hibernation home-base of the reptiles. The island is 3.6 miles long, within what French has said is the 4.5 mile annual range of an ambitious snake, with most keeping within 2.5 miles of home. The snakes can swim but would be easy prey for eagles if they tried, are not inclined to establish new dens and will have ample food on Zion, French said.

As at last month’s meeting, French said the snakes will not spread and will not pose a threat to the public even if they did, citing heavily hiked and rattlesnake-inhabited state parks.

“The concerns I am hearing give snakes credit for things they are not biologically capable of doing,” French said.

Members speaking for the plan called it a rare opportunity to help an endangered species and agreed with French’s assessment of the danger.

Gates said his board opposes the plan because Zion has public access — a portable toilet for fisherman — and because the plan should have been brought to the QWAC earlier. Brighenti said his board of directors is very concerned about access. If someone is bitten, closing public access will immediately appear on the agenda, he said.