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Canada’s beaver problem

Beaver populations are making a post-fur trade resurgence, causing lots of trouble and a few cases of panic


 
(Brian Lasenby/Shutterstock)

(Brian Lasenby/Shutterstock)

Not expecting to get chased by a beaver that he claims had aerial capabilities, Donnie Springer once set out to hunt a moose. He drove a three-wheel dirt bike in front of his father-in-law, around Devil’s Lake, Man., but soon realized his father-in-law was missing. Springer turned back, and found the man speeding away from a bucktooth terror. The beaver then turned on Springer.

The beaver first chased him using its typical method of running on its legs. However, Springer was riding at about 25km/hr, he recalls of an incident around the year 2000. For the beaver to catch up, Springer claims it deployed its tail as a spring. “It would sit on its tail, and it would go shooting itself about 10 feet in the air,” he says. “It would use its tail to propel itself … he was just a givin’ ‘er”

There is a perception in several parts of Canada that beavers are invading. In June, CTV reported that the city of Edmonton put up signs warning dog owners about dangerous beavers after several beaver attacks on pets, and the Winnipeg Free Press reported recently beavers “wreaking havoc in parts of Manitoba on a scale not seen in a lifetime.” Saskatchewan inaugurated a controversial beaver-hunting derby last spring, which reaped 589 kills, and some municipalities have introduced bounties. Farmers continue to bereave the flooding of fields; drivers, of roads, and cottagers, the loss of their favourite trees. The population is in fact surging, and the species even became a recent fascination of genome researchers. However, the growing number is only a revival of the natural population that was massacred for the fur trade, and as beavers make a comeback, Canadians may be blowing the threat out of proportion.

“Beavers cannot leap,” assures Michael Runtz, author of The Natural History of Beavers and Their Ponds and a lecturer at Carleton University. “That’s ridiculous. If you’ve ever seen a beaver, it’s not built for leaping.” He says Canadians are “over-reacting, certainly.”

READ MORE: Meet the first person to explore the world’s largest beaver dam

Beaver behavior is, nevertheless, appalling people across the country. In a dog park in Edmonton, pet owners complained last month of Canada’s national icon biting their English Setters and Golden Retrievers. Even Runtz says his friend in Ottawa reported lying on the boardwalk this summer when a beaver bit her hand, demanding stitches. More seriously, in Ontario in 2013, a beaver dam caused a country road to flood at night and sent three cars over an 18-foot edge, where miraculously nobody was hurt. In Manitoba, Springer’s cousin, Dan Meisner, a councillor for the rural municipality of Grahamdale, has spent the Spring on patrol for hundreds of finely-crafted dams. “Every stick is perfectly lined up with the other one,” says Meisner. “You’d think a human was doing it.”

Instead, humans are undoing it. Meisner and neighbouring cattle farmers are renting excavators to demolish the dams, and the municipality of Harrison Park has hired a beaver trapper. Residents of Portage la Prairie, Man. have earned a $60 bounty for even baby beavers, called kits, or land owners can install “beaver baffles,” which trick the creatures with pipes to let water flow beneath their dams. Others prefer dynamite.

Two hundred plus years of the fur trade killed off beaver populations—40 to 60 million beavers basked in North America in the 19th century before hunters massacred them for hats and perfume. Now in revival mode, the comeback kits have grown to around 10 to 50 million beavers across the continent (including Mexico). “We got used to an image of North America that didn’t have beavers in it,” says Frances Backhouse, author of Once They Were Hats: In Search of the Mighty Beaver. “We see them as interlopers. We really have to get used to having them around. Unless we go back to the slaughter of the fur trade, we’re not going to get rid of them.”

READ MORE: 12 dishes made from beaver

That’s not to say there isn’t still some national pride left for Canada’s national animal. Scientists at SickKids Hospital learned last year that the University of Oregon crowdfunded a project to sequence the school’s beaver mascot, and “it is therefore a matter of national urgency that the beaver genome race be won by Canada,” read an internal document from the project in August 2016. Researchers at SickKids drew blood from a Quebecois beaver, Ward, and his “wife,” named June, living in the Toronto Zoo.

The genome doesn’t suggest beavers can fly. In response to Springer’s beaver tale—of the creature bouncing on its tail like Tigger—Backhouse says, “It doesn’t fit with anything I know about how beavers move. They’re awkward on land. They kind of waddle.”

The exception was the parachuting beavers of the 1940s. Trappers in Idaho transplanted nuisance beavers by trapping them, boarding them onto an airplane and placing them in wooden boxes with parachutes attached. They descended with grace. Millions of viewers gaped over the footage, but in Manitoba, the incident of the bouncing beaver in hot pursuit—getting air—was witnessed by Springer alone.

WATCH: A champion rodeo caller narrates this cattle-herding beaver video


 

Canada’s beaver problem

  1. These critters are definately a pain. Time to round them up and decrease the population again.

  2. Beaver are just who we think they are. Behind our cottage they’ve always been but a discontinuation of trapping and a change in forestry practice has created an opportunity. Selective cutting for the currently desirable yellow birch results in early regrowth of beaver fodder – beaver are fat and happy and instead of migrating up and down water courses as they cyclically decimate their food stock in an area they just fill out the area: a chain of 3 cyclically occupied ponds is now a 2 km long mega pond. In another spot what was a 10 acre pond for decades has grown into a 150 acre mega-project; as water levels were raised, a secondary outlet appeared over a resources road so beaver started a secondary dam which grew and grew from a minor 6 m embankment to a 100 m long dam in the space of 10 years then last year they moved the entire thing about 8 m to the other side of the road putting it under water. One of the ‘problems’ seems to be that the pine and hemlock forests for which the area was famous in the 19th century has a natural succession that begins with hardwood forest and only culminates in climax forest in 3 or 4 centuries (old growth is OLD growth) so modern practice that only wants forests to reach commercial size rather than maturity will continue to make forests beaver friendly; operations like clear-cuts of hardwood ridges merely resets natural succession back by 90 years or so. But beaver are truly industrious. On the French River where scrubby red pine and red oak dominate the landscape, I found a spot where beaver had climbed about 60 meters up a precipice – difficult for humans to climb – to access a small cluster of poplar and birch. Also, locals who have blown out dams in the back woods know that beaver can make repairs faster than one can (legally) acquire dynamite. However, it’s not all bad as beaver create new habitat for fish, moose, muskrat and otter. They also turn marginal waterways into navigable water: one dry summer in Algonquin Park were low water warnings were in effect we cruised for 5 km (to our pleasant surprise) down a small river until we arrived at a 6 m high mega dam. Also, whether it’s just numbers or the weather, beaver activity in northern Ontario in the winter seems to be way up: both walking the land to get a head start on tree felling and digging out cat tail and lily pad roots. As for beaver bites – they are small organic chain saws and not always ready to run off; last winter a pair of enormous beaver stood their ground as I skied to within 2 m on ice while 2 kits stayed at the edge of a nearby breathing hole and jabbered at me. It’s interesting that humans tend to see them as pests rather than environmental engineers.

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