Impact of Heron Pond lowering unknown until better weather arrives

MILFORD – Given the extreme cold and frozen water, it’s impossible to know the fate of endangered reptiles at Heron Pond, the head of the state Fish and Game Department said last week.

The well-being of turtles and snakes has become an issue here as a local environmental group battles town officials over plans for the area and criticized them for lowering Heron Pond’s water level last fall.

Glenn Normandeau, who had told Milford officials in a letter last month they should have notified the state before they breached Heron Pond’s beaver dam, said there is nothing to do about it now.

“It’s all done and over with,” he said, and short of finding damaged turtles, there’s no way to know the impact of the drawdown.

In his letter, he admonished town officials for not communicating with Fish and Game, because the pond’s drawdown corresponded with hibernation periods for two endangered turtle species, Blandings and spotted turtles, that have been observed near the pond.

Town officials say they worked with the state department through the decision process, and in a phone interview, Normandeau conceded that Milford officials and his department had been communicating, up to a point, but he hadn’t known about the drawdown.

He also said the town had a legal right to take that action, seeming to back away from the assertion in his Dec. 4 letter that laws had been broken.

But “it would have been nice to know ahead,” Normandeau said, and state officials would have preferred the town wait until spring when the reptiles have more opportunities to move around.

The town had decided to breach the dam to prevent flooding of Heron Pond Road, the access to Heron Pond Elementary School, and nearby properties.

The turtles and snakes are major figures in the ongoing conflict between the town and Brox Environmental Citizens as the town prepares a major excavation of earth materials in the southern part of its Brox property, where Heron Pond is located.

Although they are not on the federal endangered list, Blanding’s turtles are considered endangered throughout much of their range, including in New Hampshire. The species are of interest in longevity research, as they show little to no common signs of aging and are physically active and able to reproduce into eight or nine decades of life.

The turtles overwinter under or near water, in mud or under vegetation or debris and are said to be timid and may plunge into water and remain on the bottom for hours when alarmed.

Their primary threat is habitat fragmentation and destruction as well as nest predation by unnaturally large populations of predators.

A much smaller turtle specie observed in the Heron Pond area is the spotted turtle, which received international protection in 2013 when it was listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which includes species that are not currently threatened with extinction but may become so if trade is not controlled.

In 2015, the Endangered Species Coalition called the spotted turtle one of the 10 species in the United States most threatened by habitat fragmentation, because this very small and mobile species lacks safe, navigable corridors to connect them to important habitat or other populations.

The hognose snake, the only endangered snake species known to be in the Heron Pond area, is said to be harmless to people and pets, despite its cobra-like threat display.

If it “fails to deter a would-be predator (the snake will) often roll onto (its) back and play dead, going so far as to emit a foul musk and fecal matter and let their tongues hang out of their mouth, sometimes accompanied by small droplets of blood, according to Wikipedia.

“If they are rolled upright while in this state, they will often roll back, as if insisting they really are dead.”

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