In A New Hampshire Town, It’s Snowmobilers Vs. Beavers
This article is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by Mara Hoplamazian, was originally published by NHPR.
On a Saturday afternoon walk, Kelly Schofield and her husband turned a corner onto a road near their house in Bow. They sensed something was wrong with the beaver pond before they saw it.
“You could smell it. It was pretty strong. And then when we got down to the pond where you could really see the pond, you could see it was gone,” she said.
The pond was drained. Left behind was a huge tract of mud, and creatures trying to survive. Neighbors took videos of fish floundering as the water receded.
Beavers are beloved by some and considered a nuisance by many. But Schofield and others who lived on the pond agreed: nature’s engineers made their property more valuable, and made their lives better. They took their kids down to the water to learn about frogs and turtles; watched ducks stop by as they migrated south.
In the winter, this beaver pond, technically known as an impoundment, was an ice skating spot for many, including Lisa Franklin’s family.
“We set up a little chair on the pond that we kind of leave kind of hidden in the woods so they can change for their skates,” she said. “Some of our favorite times, I think, are skating as the moon is coming up. That is so magical.”
For the ice-skaters and budding naturalists, the pond was a way to enjoy the environment. But for another group, the beavers got in the way of what they love to do: snowmobiling.
“About five years ago it got really out of control—the water was going up over the trail and undermining the bridge on both sides. So it was getting expensive,” Mark Dube, a representative of the Bow Pioneers Snowmobile club, told the town’s selectboard at a September meeting.
The bridge, which the snowmobile club built and maintains, is about 50 feet, wooden, and located next to the dam. Riders use it to access trails.
As the beaver dam grew and the water got higher, the snowmobile club decided to take matters into their own hands. They installed a device—a pipe—meant to trick the beavers and keep water flowing through the dam. And it worked. The beavers were tricked for about five years, Dube said. It was a harmonious time for all parties.
Then the beavers got smart. They plugged up the device and built around it. The snowmobilers say the rising waters were threatening the bridge.
So the club went to the selectboard. They wanted the beavers gone and asked to remove “debris caused by the beavers” from the pond, most of which is technically on town-owned land.
The motion easily passed.
The club later sent an email to the selectboard clarifying that they were allowed to use an excavator to remove the dam. They also warned the town that neighbors might call.
Turns out, they were right.
Neighbors didn’t just call. They organized. Many showed up to a selectboard meeting a couple of weeks after the pond was drained, in early November, to air their grievances.
“We moved in because we had a pond in the backyard. Now we have a smelly mud hole, and it’s disgusting. It looks crappy,” said Bill Lemear.
Others said the situation set a dangerous precedent for town government; it felt like the snowmobilers asked for an inch, took a mile, and faced no consequences. Though removing the beavers and their dam is allowed under state law, many felt like it was a breach of trust. Neighbors of the pond say they weren’t notified before the decision was made.
Courtney Beach, who lives near the pond, told the select board the language in the motion—“removing debris”—was confusing.
“Many of us probably would have been present if we were under the impression that the dam was being removed as a whole. But due to the verbiage and how it was written in the agenda, that was not something that we anticipated,” she said.
Fans of the beavers presented a plan to create a committee that would look for ways to restore the drained area back into a pond and implement a more formal process for similar requests in the future.
The new group met for the first time at Bow’s municipal building in the early evening towards the end of November. Seats filled up around a large table, and attendees filled out the two rows of chairs at the back of the room.
The snowmobilers showed up, too. Tensions, and volume, ran high. Sandy Crystall, the chair of the town’s conservation commission, had to ask participants to talk one at a time.
But as the night wore on, the tone softened. Lisa Franklin asked the room to think about how they could all work together to maintain the environment for everyone.
“I think we just all agree that we want a pond, and we want to allow the snowmobiles. We’re hoping for a way to coexist,” she said.
People pitched their ideas for restoring the pond and keeping the bridge safe. Mark Dube even came up with his own, inspired by his time working on railroads in Northern Maine that had issues with beavers plugging nearby culverts.
By the end of the meeting, Dube was exchanging contact information with the rest of the committee to coordinate a proposal.
Some residents are determined to restore the pond. But to install a new dam or make other changes, they’ll need to get a permit from the state, and that could be a long shot. Their best bet might be to wait, and hope another family of beavers moves back in.
There’s a long road ahead for the town. In the meantime, the snowmobilers are widening their bridge, and families like Lisa Franklin’s are preparing for a winter without backyard ice skating.
Standing by the drained pond on a cold November morning, Franklin looked out over the mud with some of her neighbors. Four ducks, maybe migrating south, flew overhead. They started to come in for a landing, but suddenly turned around, realizing the water was gone.
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Mara Hoplamazian is a climate change reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord, New Hampshire.
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IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance. Our story is a tale of rodents, betrayal, and the machinations of local bureaucracy. Bow, New Hampshire, it’s a small town outside of Concord. Its residents enjoy a variety of outdoor activities, like ice skating, birdwatching, and snowmobiling. They would all come together at a local pond. But beavers at the pond led to controversy and conflict with the town government.
Joining me now to talk about this beaver brouhaha is Mara Hoplamazian, climate change reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio, based in Concord. Welcome back to Science Friday.
MARA HOPLAMAZIAN: Thanks so much. Happy to be here.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. OK, beaver, pond, what could go wrong?
MARA HOPLAMAZIAN: So this pond is technically an impoundment. The beavers created it. They’re the reason why people are able to ice skate on the pond. They make it possible for the fish to live. They’re the reason the ducks can stop by as they migrate.
But for this snowmobile club in town, their dam and the water in the pond were a problem. The snowmobilers built this bridge across one end of the pond, right next to where the beaver dam is, near where the pond turns into a stream, so they could access a snowmobiling route in the woods. And the snowmobilers said, as the dam got bigger over time and the water level got harder to manage, it was threatening the bridge and interrupting their snowmobiling.
So they put in this pipe meant to trick the beavers– sometimes people call this kind of device a beaver deceiver– and that was meant to keep the water level down. But the beavers ended up just plugging that up, too. And the snowmobilers said they sort of ran out of options.
IRA FLATOW: So who came out on top in this story so far?
MARA HOPLAMAZIAN: Well, the snowmobile club got approval from the town government to trap the beavers and remove what they called debris caused by the beavers. It was pretty unclear to most people what that meant. But the club ended up removing a lot of the dam itself and killing the Beavers.
And because the pond was created by the beavers, when the dam was gone, all the water drained out. So it was this kind of grizzly scene. The neighbors said, when they first saw the water drain, fish were sort of flopping around, trying to survive.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, no.
MARA HOPLAMAZIAN: Plus, they had to explain to their kids that there wouldn’t be any ice skating this winter. The day I was there, it looked like just this huge mud pit. There was a flock of ducks that tried to land, but they seemed to realize the water was gone and they just turned around.
IRA FLATOW: So the neighbors really had no idea this would all happen. Was there fallout from this?
MARA HOPLAMAZIAN: Oh, yeah, there was a lot of pushback in the community Facebook group. The neighbors of the pond actually organized. First, they went to this selectboard meeting to air their grievances to town officials. They said the former pond had turned into this smelly mudhole. They had concerns about the impacts on wildlife. And some also said the whole situation set a dangerous precedent.
Some people felt like the snowmobile club had asked for an inch, taken a mile, and faced no consequences. Fans of the beavers presented a plan to create a committee that would look for ways to restore the drained area back into a pond. And that group met for the first time in late November.
I was at that meeting. And the tensions were still really running high. Here’s what happened when Mark Dube, who manages the trails for the snowmobile club, tried to explain himself.
MARK DUBE: And we weren’t going to wait until it runs over the banks and takes out our bridge and takes out our trail again.
BOW RESIDENT: So you take our pond.
BOW RESIDENT: Right.
SANDY CRYSTALL: Folks, one person at a time, please.
MARK DUBE: Because it’s not a reasonable outcome.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. They had a frank exchange of views, all right, at that meeting.
MARA HOPLAMAZIAN: They did. The tone softened a little bit as the night wore on and people tried to figure out how they could work together and use the land in the way they all wanted to. And folks proposed solutions for rebuilding the beavers’ work.
IRA FLATOW: It’s kind of funny to hear people are complaining about beaver engineering, but people change the natural landscape all the time. I mean, was this something you were thinking about while reporting this?
MARA HOPLAMAZIAN: Totally. I hear a lot of people talking about how beavers are a nuisance animal. But they’re also super beloved, especially by people who benefit from the habitats they create. Each of the groups in Bow– the neighbors who like the pond, the snowmobilers who wanted to change the landscape for their own benefit, and the beavers– each have this deep relationship to that piece of land and that body of water.
And it really made me think about how we see ourselves in relation to the natural world, how we use it and change it to fit our needs, and how changes to the landscape can be really meaningful for a wide variety of reasons.
IRA FLATOW: So has this been settled? Or what is the future of the pond now?
MARA HOPLAMAZIAN: Well, some residents are really determined to restore it back into a pond. But to install a new dam or make other changes, they’d need to get permission from the state. And that could be a long shot. So their best bet might be to wait and hope another family of beavers moves back in.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Mara. Mara Hoplamazian, climate change reporter at New Hampshire Public Radio, based in Concord.
Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.