BOSTON >> Apologizing for a lack of public engagement in developing plans to establish a rattlesnake habitat on a Quabbin Reservoir island, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton on Tuesday opened the door to potential alternatives to the controversial measure to assist an endangered species.
During an oversight hearing held in Athol by the Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, Beaton announced the creation of a working group that would study the "merit, location and timeline" of the snake preservation proposal.
If an "elevated level of concern" remains after "extensive engagement," officials could consider other options, Beaton said.
"While the plan was a rational one, built on a foundation of sound science, what that plan lacked was the engagement and support of you, both the Legislature and the public," Beaton said. "As secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, that lack of dialogue and conversation falls on me and I take full responsibility for this lack of proper engagement. Let me be very clear in saying I am sincerely sorry."
Native to Massachusetts, the timber rattlesnake is considered an endangered species.
Tom French, assistant director of the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, said timber rattlesnake populations were "mostly eradicated" in the 18th and 19th centuries, primarily due to "deliberate persecution" by humans.
"We are looking to try to establish a safety net in one place in the state where timber rattlesnakes can exist without being interfered with by people, without having the risk of deliberate killing or road mortality, so to protect them from the people that had been causing their slow but constant decline," French said.
The location environment officials pegged for the preservation effort — Mount Zion Island in the Quabbin Reservoir — is the "one place in the entire state" that meets the necessary criteria, French said.
The spot must be more than 1,000 acres in size, off-limits to the public, and mostly forested with some wetlands and landscape that snakes can use for a "deep hibernation site," he said.
The Quabbin Reservoir's Prescott Peninsula is "plausibly" a second option, though part of it has been flooded and is likely no longer "an adequate hibernation site," French said.
The plan to raise newborn rattlesnakes in captivity for two winters then release them in a boulder field on Mount Zion Island has met pushback from area residents who have raised concerns the decision was made without much public discussion or input.
"This is a controversial issue," Athol Selectman Anthony Brighenti said at the start of Tuesday's hearing. "Nobody went to the coffee shops, to the barber shops, to the hair-styling salons to ask what the real people wanted, but finally we're getting our way."
Beaton said officials discussed the plans at public forums in Rutland, Belchertown and Orange but later reached the conclusion that additional feedback opportunities were necessary.
Fish and Game Commissioner George Peterson told the committee the science behind the preservation plan was sound but said he wanted to "apologize sincerely for how this project was rolled out."
"We blew this, terribly," he said. "Absolutely terribly."
Sen. Anne Gobi, a Spencer Democrat who co-chairs the Environment Committee, said she appreciated the apologies and commitment to forming a working group.
"It is unfortunate that maybe that wasn't done six or seven months ago when we could have probably headed this off a bit," Gobi said before asking if the snake preservation plan would be put on hold until the working group reached its conclusions.
Beaton said he did not "want to say necessarily we are on a suspension," but there was a "significant amount of time before any action would be taken" and he hoped a plan could be developed through a collaborative approach.
"At the end of that process, if there is a conclusion amongst the legislative delegation and the local officials and the general public that this is not in the best interest of the biodiversity of the local region, then we would consider making a change in course of action," Beaton said.
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg told reporters Tuesday that he was hoping the situation could be resolved in a "fair and reasonable manner."
"Remember, four communities were flooded to create the Quabbin, so there's still 100-year-old unhappiness lingering because generations of people lost their homesteads," the Amherst Democrat said. He continued, "People are very sensitive about what happens out there and the state coming in and kind of rolling over them, and that's I think a big part of what's going on in relation to the Quabbin as well."