BOSTON >> Defending the Baker administration's plan to create a habitat for the endangered timber rattlesnake on an island in the Quabbin Reservoir, Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matt Beaton told lawmakers Tuesday the snakes had coexisted with people for centuries.
"Some folks have said, 'Well snakes can swim. Have you ever seen one of these things swim? They're going to get on the island, and it's going to be mass hysteria and snakes,' " Beaton told the House and Senate committees on Ways and Means. "Well if you look back in colonial times, the number of incidents, you can count on your hand how many times there has been a snake attack."
State officials received a federal grant to help the species, which is threatened by people either killing them deliberately or inadvertently by driving over them on the road, according to Beaton and a state fact sheet on the plan.
The offspring of Bay State rattlers, the snakes will spend two winters at the Roger Williams Zoo in Rhode Island before being placed on Mount Zion, a large island in the reservoir that supplies Metro Boston with drinking water, according to the state.
Beaton said the island provides a perfect habitat for timber rattlesnakes, which he said burrow into rock crevices in the winter. Beaton said even if a snake did swim off the island it would likely not present a threat unless harassed and would have poor chances of surviving the winter away from its habitat.
Mount Zion is closed to the public and Beaton described it as the "perfect, ideal place to restore a species that has felt the pressures of human expansion." Hoping to temper fears of the island snake habitat, Beaton said one of the densest populations of timber rattlesnakes is the Blue Hills, a popular hiking area south of Boston.
Beaton's explanation was prompted by a question from Rep. Todd Smola, a Warren Republican, who said there is "great concern" about the plan, as the area around the Quabbin is used for hunting and fishing. From his response, it was clear that Beaton, Smola's former colleague in the House Republican caucus, had also heard concerns raised about the plan, which has received a fair amount of publicity.
"Unfortunately it's not a nice furry little bunny we can pet and everybody likes. There is a negative connotation some folks have in their mind just by snakes alone, and I think that has sort of helped fuel some of this," Beaton said. He said, "I encourage everybody, if you do see one don't start poking it with a stick, because, you know, you're going to get it mad. Otherwise there's no significant threat to the human population."
According to the state, the coiled snake on the Revolutionary War-era Gadsden Flag, which features the message "Don't tread on me" is a timber rattlesnake.
Speaking at an offshore wind conference later in the afternoon, Beaton told the audience, "My apologies for being a little late, coming off my two and a half hour Ways and Means hearing, so I'm a little rattled here coming in here."