New Hampshire officials eye Heron Pond reptiles

MILFORD – Town officials say they were surprised by a strongly worded letter from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department admonishing them for the recent drawdown of water at Heron Pond.

In the Dec. 4 letter, Glenn Normandeau, the agency’s executive director, wrote that Milford officials might have broken a state law when they breached a beaver dam in November, because endangered reptile species were put at risk. The town’s actions have been reported to the attorney general’s office, it said.

Early in November the town breached the dam to bring down the water level of the 34-acre pond by about 18 inches.

Fred Elkind, the town environmental coordinator, said the water level was reduced about a foot to protect against flooding and high water impacts to Heron Pond Road. The additional temporary lowering assisted in the installation of a beaver control device.

Elkind said in a phone interview that he has been working with Fish and Game all along and generally there has been a “very congenial relationship.”

“There is no reason to believe we are having serious differences. We are working together through the process,” and “we were shocked” by the letter.

“We are sensitive to not trying to lower (the water level) too much, he said, and the pond’s drawdown didn’t “come out the blue.” There is a whole paper trail,” in which the agency asked questions and the town answered.

Town Administrator Mark Bender replied to Normandeau two days later, noting the town had addressed the comments and guidance from Fish and Game staff.

“There was never any indication or directive from your staff which informed the town not to proceed with this work,” Bender wrote, “nor any warning that if we were to proceed, violation of state statutes would occur.”

A real concern on the part of Fish and Game was the timing, Elkind said, because the drawdown corresponded with turtle hibernation periods.

State-endangered turtles, Normandeau wrote, “are particularly vulnerable to harm during the cold weather months if their chosen location of hibernation is altered through water-level reductions” and individual animals are likely to be at risk of harm or death.

“I am dismayed as I review the file and the timeline of events here, that we now face the avoidable potential loss of threatened and endangered species,” he said. “This is not only regrettable, it might rise to the level of a knowing and intentional violation of a state statute.”

But as part of the town’s agreement with the agency in regard to endangered turtles, Elkind said, Fish and Game attached radio transmitters to the animals to track their movements, and none have gone into the pond.

At the same time, he said, the agency’s letter doesn’t seem to recognize that the town is responsible for protecting the single access road to Heron Pond School.

And the pond’s depth varies naturally, Elkind said. About a year ago Eversource was replacing power lines over the pond and took a measure of its depth, and when they returned the level was four feet higher than their original measurement.

Normandeau asked that the town repair the beaver dam’s breach to restore the water “to a level more protective of wildlife.”

In October, acting on the advice of town conservation coordinator Fred Elkind and DPW director Rick Riendeau, selectmen gave their OK to a plan to lower the pond’s water level to help prevent flooding of Heron Pond Road and nearby properties and also give the pond more storage capacity.

If trees that line the road are damaged by water, said Elkind, they can die and in the process damage the road.

Normandeau said he has seen reports that indicate threats to the road were overstated.

“What we have not seen,” he said, is an engineering report that quantifies the threat. “Even if such a reduction of water level was supportable” … the breach “could not have been undertaken at a worse time for the threatened and endangered turtle species known to be present.”

The words “state endangered” refers to animal species whose populations are at risk in New Hampshire, but are not necessarily endangered outside it. At the Brox property, these include the Blanding’s turtle, spotted turtle and hog-nosed snake.

In his letter, Bender said the level is being adjusted to allow an approximate six-inch increase in pond elevation.

“The goal has been to protect public health and safety, while recognizing environmental senstivities,” he said.

Normandeau could not be reached at press time.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.

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