The Quabbin Project is QUASHED
Many organizations voiced support for the project, including
the Nature Conservancy, Mass Audubon, Quabbin Watershed
Advisory Committee, Worcester County League of Sportsman’s
Clubs, and Athol Bird and Nature Club. In a letter to state officials,
Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust Executive Director Leigh
Youngblood summed up that organization’s position: “In the rural
areas of north central Massachusetts, recreation, wildlife habitat,
and active land stewardship have long co-existed and help define
the very rural character we cherish here. We welcome these quiet
neighbors and hope they thrive.” And despite admitting to a fear
of snakes in a radio interview, Massachusetts Governor Charlie
Baker has been in favor of the plan from the outset.
In spite of these endorsements, the unexpected opposition
from the general public prompted several politicians from central
and western Massachusetts, including Anne Gobi, co-chair of
the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and
Agriculture, to call for the temporary suspension of the plan.
At an oversight hearing in May 2016, state officials apologized
for the lack of communication and convened a working group
to solicit additional public feedback and provide a recommendation for whether the project should go ahead. Several more
public meetings, including the aforementioned gathering in
Ware, were held in early 2017, and an online survey elicited
hundreds of additional comments. In spite of the outreach,
many people remained staunchly opposed to the rattlesnakes.
When word got out that Mount Tom in western Massachusetts
was also being considered as a potential release site, the Holyoke
City Council immediately voted to oppose the project.
On a mild late-April day, when the first released snakes might
have been basking on Mount Zion’s ledges, the Massachusetts
Fisheries and Wildlife Board unanimously voted to suspend
the Quabbin project indefinitely. Instead, as described by
working group member Dave Small, the state will work to
“develop a comprehensive, peer-reviewed recovery plan for the
entire Massachusetts rattlesnake population that may or may
not include the establishment of a new colony somewhere in the
state.” The state’s new priority will be to increase protection for
the existing colonies, including stiffer penalties for people who
disturb rattlesnakes and other endangered species. In the meantime, the snakes that were raised at the Roger Williams Zoo will
be returned to existing populations.
The opposition to the project has demonstrated how public
attitudes toward snakes and other unpopular species can
complicate efforts to protect them, even in the face of scientific
evidence and in a progressive state with a long tradition of wildlife conservation. As nature writer Ted Williams put it, “If you
can look with equal appreciation and concern at timber rattlesnakes and, say, New England cottontail rabbits, both gravely
imperiled in the Northeast, you’ve arrived as a naturalist. Many
Americans aren’t close to that.” In recent years, perceptions of
other once-maligned species, such as the great white sharks that
have recently returned to Cape Cod’s waters or the wolves that
now attract throngs of tourists to Yellowstone National Park,
have changed for the better. Time is of the essence; one hopes
that people will come to appreciate timber rattlesnakes before
they entirely disappear from our woods.
John Burk is a writer, photographer, and historian from central Massachusetts who has spent many years exploring Quabbin Reservoir and its wildlife. He has authored or edited
more than a dozen regional books and guides and worked for 10 years at Harvard Forest.