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Dam controversy: After Bow pond drained, some residents hope to leave the future up to beavers

A beaver impoundment in Bow was drained, after a local snowmobile club removed a dam.
Mara Hoplamazian
A beaver impoundment in Bow was drained, after a local snowmobile club removed a dam.

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 5 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.

The bridge, maintained by the Bow Pioneers Snowmobile Club, sits right next to the former beaver dam.
Mara Hoplamazian
The bridge, maintained by the Bow Pioneers Snowmobile Club, sits right next to the former beaver dam.

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 selectboard 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.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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