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State Busts Beaver Dam Threatening to Submerge Route 12A

Water flows over the remains of a beaver dam near Route 12a in Plainfield, N.H., on May 9, 2014. 
(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Water flows over the remains of a beaver dam near Route 12a in Plainfield, N.H., on May 9, 2014. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Plainfield — When it comes to flooding roadways, highway officials can’t just leave it to the beavers.

But after state workers dismantled a beaver dam in a pond along Route 12A in Plainfield Friday in order to prevent highway flooding, some lamented the destruction, asking themselves: Does it have to be this way?

“I said, you know, somebody’s got to stick up for the beaver sometime,” said Bill Monette, of Cornish, recalling the scene. “Wildlife is losing habitat, and when they find a spot to make habitat, you think it would be good for us and for our advantage for our grandchildren and whatnot to have habitat around you. We’ve encroached on them long enough.”

Town and state officials, though, said they’re not in the business of bullying beavers just for kicks. Their job, they said, is to keep roadways clear and drivers safe.

“(Residents) like to watch the beavers but they also like to be able to drive to and from work or wherever they’re going, and often the two don’t mesh,” said Alan Hanscom, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation engineer for the district including Plainfield.

“We need to have functioning culverts so that when the big storms come along, there’s a place for the water to go. It might look peaceful on a sunny day, but when a thunderstorm comes along or Tropical Storm Irene comes along, we need to pass the water through.”

Although the dam was dismantled on Friday by state workers, Plainfield Town Administrator Steve Halleran said he was familiar with the situation.

“The water, literally, on Wednesday was almost to the pavement,” he said. “It’s so high, the state has no choice.”

Monette said he understands the need to prevent flooding. But in the 50 years that he’s lived in the area, he said he’s yet to see officials come up with a different solution besides tearing up the dams or dispatching the animals on Route 12A.

Hanscom said he was not very familiar with the Route 12A situation. However, he said that dealing with beavers is a low-cost solution compared to spending potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuild or reroute the road, with no guarantee that it would solve the problem.

And not all residents felt like granting the beavers much sympathy. When broached with the topic of beavers, Plainfield resident Carl Strong had a quick response: “Damn pesky varmints,” he said.

Strong, who lives on Whittaker Road near Blow Me Down Brook, has good reason to be weary of the creatures, as beaver dams on and around his property have led to repetitive flooding in the decades that he’s lived there, he said.

“We did have a trapper come in and take some, so we take the first dam … and they’re right back,” he said. “You can’t win.”

Others, though, still felt for the creatures. Kathy Kenny lives in the apartment above Complete Canine, which overlooks the Route 12A beaver pond, and works at the kennel and training center as a groomer. In her 12 years there, she said she’s repeatedly seen the dams dismantled, and saw a dead beaver pulled out of a trap once.

Many beavers also fall victim to Route 12A traffic; she saw two dead on the side of the road last week, she said.

Kennel Manager Bridget Hazelton, who has worked at Complete Canine for five years, said she and her colleagues are often disappointed when workers show up to bully the beavers. On Friday, she pointed across the property to a pile of sticks in the pond, the dismantled dam.

“We don’t like that,” she said, “because again, we’re animal lovers.”

Years ago, beavers weren’t so prominent in the Upper Valley, said Halleran, who remembers state workers catching and relocating beavers during his youth because they were “valuable resources.” According to the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department website, excessive trapping in the 1800s had nearly eliminated the rodents by the early 20th century.

Not so today, as Halleran said the area is overflowing with beavers. The animals managed to repopulate after officials released six into the state between 1926 and 1930 as part of a restocking program, according to Fish and Game.

Now, several officials said, it’s often only a matter of days — or less — between when workers take down a dam and when beavers build it back up again.

“It’s a war,” Halleran said. “We love them, they’re cute, they’re wonderful engineers, but there’s just too many.”

Just this month, beavers were the cause behind a partial road wash-out in Hinsdale, said NHDOT public information officer Bill Boynton. A 50-foot section of Route 63 was destroyed after a beaver dam failed, releasing a deluge of water, the Keen e Sentinel reported.

Repair work is estimated to cost $30,000 to $50,000.

There are “so many beavers,” as Halleran said, that the New Hampshire legislature passed a law in 2009 that made eradication easier for landowners and municipalities when roads, bridges and property are endangered.

So-called “beaver deceivers,” which can include fencing around culverts, pipes under beaver dams or a combination of both, also are allowed under the law. But while Hanscom said the state employs beaver deceivers whenever possible, he cautioned that they’re not effective in every situation.

More often than not, when beavers are causing trouble, they are trapped and killed by licensed trappers, Hanscom said, noting the trappers “try to do it in a humane way.”

“It’s certainly unfortunate that it has to happen and we try to avoid it where we can, but we’re not removing thousands of beavers every year,” Hanscom said. “There’s a select amount that are removed.”

Vermont law allows the removal of nuisance beavers and their dams, although other statutes require that water quality and wetlands be protected. The state’s Fish & Wildlife Department has dedicated a brochure to “Best Management Practices for Handling Human-Beaver Conflicts” to help residents and municipalities chart proper procedure.

The brochure was put to use in 2010, when Thetford residents endured an impassioned controversy over a family of beavers whose dam, along with an aging road culvert, had combined to undermine the surface of Godfrey Road.

The beavers, sentenced to death by a Selectboard vote, were spared following outcry from some of their human neighbors and a last-minute grant used to buy a steel plate to strengthen the road.

Selectboard Chairman Donn Downey, who was on the board during the ordeal, said in an email Monday that the steel plate was a temporary fix and a new “very large” box culvert was installed soon after.

Downey said he believed Tropical Storm Irene had washed away the beavers’ dam and it hadn’t been rebuilt to the extent that it was.

“However, they are wily critters and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they made their presence known again,” he said. “That said, the box culvert is much less prone to beaver activity because it widens and smooths out the water flow... With the previous culvert they were able to completely dam it within a day or two. With the larger opening it would take them a week before it became a problem.”

Lyme, too, has suffered some controversy over beavers, including a beaver family that was damming up an outlet off of Post Pond, raising the water level in the mid-2000s, before state law had simplified the process of dispatching nuisance beavers.

Residents sued the town for installing beaver deceivers, which they said lowered water levels too dramatically, created mud-flats and damaged wetlands. The case went all the way to the state’s high court, which sided with the town.

Separately, another set of beavers dammed up an inlet into the pond, endangering a Route 10 culvert managed by the state in 2007. Trappers dispatched those beavers.

Lyme Administrative Assistant Dina Cutting said neither of the dams have been rebuilt in the same locations.

“But it’s only a matter of time before they come back and build a dam or two, and have babies, or three or four,” she said, “and then it all starts over again.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.