A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Some Dams Need to Go

Film DamNation Feb. 5 at Keene State College shows the need for dam removals.

North Branch of the Contoocook River flows over the
dam at Robb Reservoir in Stoddard.
Follow any stream around here and sooner or later, it’ll be blocked by a dam.
If that stream itself isn’t held back by a dam, the river it feeds is jammed with a dozen or more dams, blocking fish, altering natural flow regimes and sometimes putting downstream communities at risk.

Every river and major tributary in the Monadnock Region is dammed: The Contoocook River and its tributaries are full of dams – 279 to be exact – from Jaffrey through Peterborough, Bennington, Hillsboro and all the way to Penacook. The main stem alone has 19 dams. The Contoocook’s recipient, the Merrimack River, is choked with dams all the way to the ocean. 

Many of these dams are a legacy of the Industrial Revolution, providing power that built our communities since the late-1700s. While a handful of the Contoocook River dams are generating power or protecting towns from floods (like MacDowell Dam), most are simply holding back water and blocking fish and other species from moving up and downstream.
Freeing Rivers is Catching On

Some of these obsolete old dams need to go. And in the coming years and decades, we’ll watch our rivers running a little more freely – as they should be. Not all of the dams will go, but some of them surely will, saving owners money for upkeep and helping fish reach long-blocked habitat.

Since the 1999 removal of the Edwards Dam from Maine’s Kennebec River, the notion of removing dams has been gaining traction around the country. In fact, two of the country’s biggest dam-removal projects are happening now – one on Washington’s Elwha River and the other in Maine. 

On Maine’s Penobscot River, a coalition of agencies, organizations and the Penobscot Indian Nation have raised millions to purchase dams, remove two big ones and build a bypass around another. They’ve done this while maintaining or increasing hydro-energy production. Sea-run fish like shad, herring, sturgeon and eel are already returning to habitat that had been blocked for over 150 years.

What’s happening on the Penobscot is nothing short of an incredible and long-overdue success story. While the Penobscot is a huge and complex river, its rebirth sets an example for many other rivers, here in New Hampshire and beyond.

DamNation: Film & Panel in Keene

The legacy of damming America’s rivers is explored in a new documentary, DamNation, which will be shown Feb. 5, 7 p.m., at Keene State College. Focusing on big, Western dams, the documentary shows the toll dams have taken and offers hope for restoring rivers. The film will be followed by a short panel discussion, touching on efforts to remove dams from the Connecticut and Ashuelot rivers.

New Hampshire has more than 4,800 dams, many built over 100 years ago, helping to drive the economic engine that developed the state. Some of these dams create our local iconic and treasured places, destinations for recreation. Spoonwood Pond and Nubanusit Lake in Nelson and Hancock, for instance, are artificial impoundments, created to regulate water supply for the mills in Harrisville. Even Willard Pond is an artificial impoundment.

A smaller number of dams provide fire protection (an estimated 8 percent of dams statewide). And some dams provide hydro-power (about 5 percent of dams statewide), water supply (3 percent), and flood control (2 percent). 

Old, Obsolete and Ailing Dams

That leaves quite a few dams that are doing little, other than holding back water and blocking fish. And some of those dams are unsafe. The state Dams Bureau classifies more than 300 dams as high or significant hazards, threatening property or lives downstream should they fail. Good candidates for removal.
And like our own aging population, the older those dams get, the more work they need. 

Of New Hampshire’s 4,800 dams, nearly 2,000 are privately owned, 358 are owned by local governments, 255 are state-owned. 

The 87 dams owned by the N.H. Fish and Game Department illustrates the predicament. Many of Fish and Game dams were built decades ago using federal aid funds to help restore waterfowl, like the dams at Carpenter’s Marsh in Hancock and Robb Reservoir in Stoddard. These dams helped some waterfowl species, arguably to the detriment of other species, like wood ducks.
But those dams also have harmed local fish populations, especially Eastern brook trout, by blocking habitat that they need to satisfy life cycles. 

In the coming years and decades, those dams will present Fish and Game with some hard choices. The dams will start showing their age. Some will pose serious risks to downstream places. The agency will face the choice of spending large sums of scarce dollars to improve and maintain them or spend a similar amount to remove them altogether. It’s a choice that pits waterfowl interests (at least some waterfowl species) against the interests of fisheries.

On the Seacoast, those interests and divisions are sharp, where runs of native herring, eel, shad and sea-running brook trout hold great promise with the removal of dams. And some of those dams are starting to come out, as they should.

Healthy Rivers Run Free

Fish and public safety aren’t the only good reasons to remove old dams. For the thousands of years that our rivers have run free, they’ve occasionally flooded, creating floodplains and floodplain forests. Dams, agriculture and development have drastically some of these floodplains. 

These floodplains can protect communities from flooding. The experience of Middleboro, Vermont, during Tropical Storm Irene convinced many that floodplains can serve as a natural way to protect downstream communities from potentially devastating impacts of floods.

Dams will long play a role for providing flood and fire protection, energy and recreation. Some can be fitted with innovative up- and downstream fish passage. Dam-owners can also tweak operations to help mimic natural flows. Not all dams need to go. 

But some should be removed. Owners who make that choice may find a surprising number of partners and funding to help remove them. 

DamNation will beshown February 5, 7 p.m., at the Putnam Theatre, Redfern Arts Center, Keene State College. Following the screening will be a panel discussion with: Kim Lutz, Connecticut River Program director for The Nature Conservancy; Robert King, president of Ashuelot River Hydro, Inc.; James Gallagher, administrator of the N.H. Department of Environmental Services Dam Bureau; and James Rousmaniere (moderator), retired editor of the Keene Sentinel. The event is sponsored by The Nature Conservancy and KSC Film Society.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock. Reach him at

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Eight Points about Antlers

These fast-growing bones are shed every year and disappear quickly in the woods.
Antlers are among the fastest-growing bones
in the animal world.

1.    Antlers are Different from Horns:

You sometimes hear folks referring to a deer's "horns." Maybe it's a slip or genuine confusion, but those protrusions on deer and moose heads are, in fact, antlers. They're a single structure, and really fast-growing bone that are shed and regrown each year. Aside from white-tailed deer and moose, other mammals with antlers include elk and caribou.

Horns, on the other hand, have two parts. The inside is bone, like an extension of the skull. The exterior sheath covering that bone is a hard keratin covering, a form of hair follicle, just like your fingernails, but even harder. Horns aren't shed each year; they keep growing over the animal's life (except for pronghorn antelope). Animals with horns include bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bison and cows.

And unlike antlers, horns generally aren't forked or branched.

2.    Antlers are Among the Fastest Growing Bones in the Animal Kingdom

Antlers start forming in the spring and keep growing through summer, a living tissue that's circulating blood and nerves and encased in a soft velvet. If you could touch that developing antler, you'd suddenly find that it's hot, with blood rushing through it. They're growing at an incredible rate, as much as half an inch PER DAY. A bull moose – of course the female "cows" don't grow antlers -- can have a rack that adds a pound of antler per day as it grows.

Generally, the older the moose or deer, the older its rack. That said, you can’t age a deer or moose by the size of its rack. Wear on teeth is a better indicator of age than antlers.

3.    Antlers Play a Role in Mating Process

Male deer and moose will use antlers to announce their presence to others by rubbing their racks against saplings and young trees. These “rubs” are like sign posts and can reveal a rough beating by the bull moose or whitetail buck. Sometimes, bulls and bucks will spar, using their antlers aggressively against other prospective males that are interested in females. Males can get pretty beat up in this process, suffering cuts, bruises and sometimes infections and death.

In rare cases, males may even lock antlers. One instance of two moose that had locked antlers was discovered in New Hampshire in 2003. The two bulls ultimately perished of exhaustion and dehydration. But the moose were preserved as impressive, full-size mounts in battle. The two moose tour fairs and festivals in N.H. Fish and Game Department’s traveling “Forever Locked” exhibit.

4.    That Velvet is Sensitive

In the summer months, when antlers are covered in velvet, the tips are blunted and the whole rack is sensitive to the buck (or bull moose). While antlers are in velvet, the animal will avoid sparring with another male, or even rubbing against branches. If damaged while in velvet, antlers can become deformed, pointing down or split in odd angles.

And velvet is purported to have medicinal properties for people, from helping strength and supporting bone growth to all sorts of other ailments. The science is still out on this, but it’s wise to be skeptical of such claims.

5.    Deer and Moose Drop Their Antlers after Mating Season

When mating season (called the rut) wraps up, antlers have pretty much fulfilled their purpose and are shed. New Hampshire’s white-tailed deer typically shed their temporary bone in February (earlier in the north). Moose start shedding their antlers in November or December. This process can get pretty awkward for a moose that sheds one of its 40-pound antlers, then walks around with the other for a few days until finally forcing that one off.

6.    They Disappear Quickly in the Woods

When antlers fall off in the woods, it’s amazing how fast they disappear. Antlers are full of calcium, salts and other minerals that mice, squirrels, porcupines and other animals love to devour. I’ve found antlers in early winter – dropped maybe a few weeks earlier – with heavy sign of rodent marks. Other mammals, like coyotes, will drag antlers around and chew them up.

7.    Shed Hunters May Also Find ‘Em

Antlers are also the objective of shed-hunters, folks who search the winter and spring woods in search of a fine buck or bull rack. In North Country towns like Pittsburg, shed-hunting is a big deal, as people follow snowmobile trails, power lines and other corridors seeking moose antlers. They can fetch $50 for a low-quality shed or up to several hundred dollars for a nice, big rack. Even more for a pair from the same animal.

You can search for antlers on your own, but know that antler drops are pretty random. You can search high and low and never find one. Then again, you might just stumble upon one in the woods, all chewed up and raw or in perfect condition. Also, please keep in mind that late-winter/early spring is a tough time for moose and deer. If you’re slogging around looking for antlers, you can inadvertently spook the animals, putting a ton of stress on them at the time when they most need to conserve energy. It’s a good case for leaving their habitats alone until late-spring.

8.    Keeping Score of those Racks

Antlers are among those things that, well, just invite comparison. Two organizations have made kind of a science out of comparing racks. The Boone and Crockett Club has a scoring system for measuring antlers taken by all hunters, and the Pope and Young Club’s scoring system is for bow-hunters. Both are sophisticated scoring methods, and both clubs have strong emphasis on fair chase ethics of hunting.

If you have a story about antlers, let’s hear it. Shoot a note to

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Why Would You Take a Child Hunting?

It’s not for all kids, but for some, hunting is a great way to connect with nature and parents.

Ian is ready for this fall's hunting season.

Why on earth would you do it, a few folks have asked me.

“Why on earth would you let a child carry a loaded firearm? Why would you encourage a child to shoot and kill wildlife? Why would you take a child hunting?”

There are so many ways to answer that I hardly know where to start. The answer is both complex and simple.

First, a little setting: here in rural southwestern New Hampshire, we live in an ideal place to hunt. There’s plenty of forest, great habitat for white-tailed deer, wild turkey and other game, not to mention the warblers, thrushes and other species that thrive here.

A fair amount of these lands are open and available to hunting. And many of those lands, by the way, are protected by organizations and landowners through ownership or conservation easement. Hunters, hikers and nature-lovers of all sorts enjoy the benefits of this foresight.
Second: Unlike most people who learn hunting from their fathers, I did not. My father’s father, Ralph, was an avid hunter. You can see his pride of hunting in the weathered old photos and antlers on the walls of our camp in Maine. My dad hunted a little in his youth, but pretty much gave it up when I came of age. I took up hunting as an adult, mentored by a friend.

And while Son Number One has little interest in hunting, he’s a lover of the outdoors and a conservationist at heart, now studying forestry in college. Son Number Two, now 14, is also a lover of the outdoors and a conservationist. That’s Ian, who was a toddler when he started begging to join me hunting. 

Ian would carry a pop gun on those early “expeditions.” In later years, I’d let him carry an old .22 rifle with the action missing and we’d go out for an hour or two. For me, it was not really hunting; just fun time with the kid. For him, it was an all-out adventure, filled with the awesome, wondrous responsibility of listening, learning and safety. And always, the exciting possibility of a deer.

Youth Season for Deer

For the past two years, Ian and I have participated in New Hampshire’s youth deer hunt. It’s a specially designated weekend when a youth age 15 and under can hunt with a licensed adult. 

During the youth hunt, Ian is the one carrying the real, loaded gun. And I’m watching him carefully, making sure the muzzle is pointed in a safe direction and that he’s following all the other commandments of safe firearms handling. And like some of his youth-hunt peers, Ian has already taken and aced the N.H. Fish and Game hunter education class.  

The night before is a time of preparations. Ian lays out all the items he needs before meticulously packing his camo pack. The little survivalist packs knives, a poncho, rope, compass, gloves, extra socks, granola bars and who knows what else. He has anything needed to survive and thrive in the woods. He reads up on hunting, sets out his clothes and double-checks his alarm. This kid can’t wait.

We Hunt Because We’re Human

In today’s world, we don’t need to hunt to survive. As comfortable First World folks, we can get all the food we need at the supermarket or the farm, whether we’re vegans or omnivores. But we don’t need to do things because they’re easy or convenient. Sometimes we do things for the challenge.

We hunt because we’re human. It’s the ancient urge to gather, whether it’s nuts and berries or game. It’s an ancient urge to survive, to sustain. To learn from the world and to teach what we learn. These are impulses that arise from millions of years of human evolution. 

And as our garden veggies are delicious, so too is venison. It’s all natural, organic, free-ranging, sustainable and local. As hunters, we see how deer get by. And though we’re not guaranteed a deer, we may see how another deer gives its life and how it becomes our food. 

Getting Outside and Learning Respect

Whether a young hunter considers all these weighty matters about hunting and age-old instincts, I can’t say. I suspect a young hunter processes much of the hunt in many different and complex ways.

But I do know that kids spend too much time indoors, sitting in front of screens. Encouraging children to play and explore the outdoors is even a challenge for this parent, as it is for millions of other parents.

As for the guns, I’m not the first to admit there are too many guns (especially handguns), and American culture is way too violent. And I’m among many who’ll suggest that hunting instills in children a respect for firearms, an understanding of wildlife and a keener awareness that life and death are intertwined in many ways. Folks who grow up with farm animals know what I’m saying.

That’s not to say that hunting is all about shooting and death. Far from it. I hunted for years without shooting anything!

Preserving Our Environment and Traditions

But hunting is also about patience. It’s about reading details in the woods, like tracks, buck rubs and scrapes. It’s about stepping quietly on crunchy leaves. It’s about watching the clouds and hearing the wind and tolerating the cold rain and snow. It’s about planning and anticipation. It’s about the warm tea from a Thermos on a cold day. It’s about sitting quietly with your kin, no words exchanged, just a nod now and then and an understanding. It’s about returning to a warm home, scented with fresh-baked cookies. It’s about stories – many great stories – that we’ll share for decades.

Ian and I already have many hunting stories, from the three black bears that walked by us last year, to this year’s tree stand adventures. We look forward to many more.

But when it comes to hunting with a child, don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what Ian says about it:

“From hunting I have learned about respecting and preserving our environment and our traditions, so future generations will still be able to enjoy what we do today. I have learned about the animals themselves too, and the more you know about our nature the more you want to preserve it. Hunter education has taught me about ethics and the proper safe ways to hunt and overall has made me a better naturalist, hunter and individual.”

Well said, Ian.

Now, gather up your stuff. Let’s go hunting!

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.