Assessing the Eager Beaver

An “eager beaver” is a particularly zealous person keen on succeeding. The phrase is inspired by the animal’s industrious ways, so literally, “to beaver away” means to work very hard at something admirable.

Beavers live in riparian habitat and have been nicknamed “engineers.” For many parts of the U.S., beavers were hunted to the brink of extinction during the height of the fur trade, between the 1500s – 1800s. Beaver fur was used to make felt hats. Trappers, aka “mountain men,” expanded the fur trade from the epi-center at Quebec down the St. Lawrence River, throughout the Great Lakes region and along the Mississippi River. By the 1600s, the fur trade had grown popular in New England and Virginia, as well, and had spread out west.http://www.montanatrappers.org/history.htm

Beavers were wiped out completely on Mount Desert Island, Maine, which would later be home to Acadia National Park. One of the park’s founders, George Dorr released two pairs of beavers in 1920. Unfortunately, these four beavers were closely related, and produced an inbred population of beavers for the island for many generations. One of the offspring, a male beaver, swam in the ocean to one of the outer islands, called the Cranberries. That male beaver searched for a mate all his life, but never found one. He lived as a lonely bachelor, which is sad considering beavers mate for life. Instead, he poured his pent-up energies into engineering a system of dams throughout the island’s streams and ponds. Beavers thrive especially when the habitat is rich with aspen, birch, alder, maple and other deciduous trees. They do a lot of good: beavers control soil erosion, prevent floods (as well as cause them), prevent forest fires (by thinning out trees), control aquatic plant growth, create wetlands and conserve water. Beaver ponds also provide habitat for other wildlife, including amphibians, birds and other mammals. http://animals.about.com/b/2007/01/16/beavers-help-to-protect-amphibians.htm

A large rodent with big teeth, webbed feet and a wide flat tail, the beaver is well adapted for its wetland habitat. To see beavers at work in the Rocky Mountains, check out thisNational Geographic video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TF8vQSQen2Q&feature=related Ecologists have been interested in the American beaver (Castor canadensis) with respect to its ability to reshape wetlands and redirect water flow. On the one hand, beavers help create wetlands. On the other hand, nature’s “engineers” can mess with people’s land use plans…flooding roads. Beaver-human conflicts can also include the destruction of trees or culverts.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTkxFMTRgr0&feature=related When beaver-human conflicts spur towns and cities to deal with the problem, sometimes consultants recommend culling the beaver population, as happened in a recent study for Squamish River watershed in British Columbia:http://www.squamishchief.com/article/20110204/SQUAMISH0303/302049952/-1/squamish/make-beaver-cull-a-last-resort# Modern-day trappers, often called “beaver consultants,” step in and offer services to cull beaver populations. They also make recommendations for alternatives.  http://www.chinookobserver.com/news/breaking_news/don-t-leave-it-to-beavers/article_aaa4e5a6-3968-11e0-9941-001cc4c03286.html

Several years ago, ecologists and wetland managers came up with an alternative solution to killing beavers that continue to dam streams causing floods or preventing salmon from spawning.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtEqN2Vfhyw The “beaver deceiver” is a trapezoidal fence that goes across a culvert (usually under a bridge) to manage flooding in beaver habitathttp://www.beaversww.org/solving-problems/manage-flooding/ Beaver flow control devices control the water level in a beaver pond.  For local efforts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Wildlife program may be able to supply information or funding for materials.http://www.fws.gov/northeast/nyfo/partners/other.htm

The Pennsylvania Game Commission currently has a draft beaver management plan available for comment: http://www.timesleader.com/sports/Stepping_up_for_beavers_01-30-2011.html# To view the plan, visit: http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt?open=514&objID=812843&mode=2 Other states, such as Utah, already have beaver management plans in place:http://wildlife.utah.gov/furbearer/pdf/beaver_plan_2010-2020.pdf Beaver Solutions is an example of a firm that handles these kinds of projects:http://www.beaversolutions.com/beaver_management_plans.asp

On the flipside, beavers sometimes help prevent flooding, and some organizations seek to protect beaver populations. In the Pacific Northwest:http://www.dailyastorian.com/opinion/editorials/article_1dbfed1c-28aa-11e0-9dd4-001cc4c03286.html In New Jersey:http://www.unexpectedwildliferefuge.org/Waterways.htm

Right now on the ASWM job board there is an opportunity for a field technician to conduct research on beavers’ impact on mountain wetland habitat:http://aswm.org/wetlands/job_opportunities.htm#currentjobs

For a funny story, “Beaver Overthinking Dam” (The Onion), visit:http://www.theonion.com/articles/beaver-overthinking-dam,1942/

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