Wetland Restoration? Leave it to Beaver

If beavers are permitted to help reverse wetland losses, frogs will be among the happy beneficiaries.

March 23, 2008 | | Back Issues | Environment | Spring 2008

Beavers are renowned engineers. Their dams transform our landscape, trapping sediment and creating wetlands that benefit myriad other life forms. Photo by Robert McCaw.

Beavers are renowned engineers. Their dams transform our landscape, trapping sediment and creating wetlands that benefit myriad other life forms. Photo by Robert McCaw.

On a luminous day in early spring long ago I stood among melting ice floes on a Credit River floodplain watching beavers. The river churned with snow melt. Red-winged blackbirds and song sparrows heralded winter’s defeat and the warm breeze was redolent with the sweet smell of mud and decaying vegetation.

On this lazy afternoon the four beavers – parents and two yearlings born the previous spring – showed no inclination to demonstrate their fabled industriousness. Like me, they basked in the sun, appearing to enjoy their long-awaited release from winter’s grasp. I was content to watch from afar, anxious not to disturb them.

This tranquil scene was no metaphor for the tumultuous human-beaver interactions that have prevailed since Europeans settled this continent. Our forebears trapped beavers to near oblivion, crazed by fur-trade greed. Today, here in Headwaters and beyond, beavers continue to arouse passions. Beavers are loved, hated, respected and scorned by people with opinions as resistant to breaching as beaver dams themselves.

Beavers are consummate tree cutters and renowned engineers. They build lodges, dig canals, and their dams transform our landscape, trapping sediment and creating wetlands that benefit myriad other life forms.

In her book, Beaver Tales, Audrey Tournay of the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Rouseau, Ontario observed: “If a forest can rejoice, and I think it can, that rejoicing will take place when a beaver selects a place on a stream or in a bay, builds a dam and a lodge and establishes residence. A pond will form, water weeds will grow, and habitat for all sorts of creatures will result – ducks, deer, moose, muskrats, raccoons, skunks, fish, frogs and dragonflies. The water will seep deep into the earth and nurture trees and plants, even during droughts. Beavers are basic to a healthy wilderness.”

The role of beavers in creating ponds and swamps should be well considered by people in Ontario, which has already lost over two-thirds of its wetlands, and people in Peel, where wetlands represent 3 or 4 per cent of the region, down from 11 per cent.

In fact, in many European countries, where beavers had been all but eradicated, they are being reintroduced precisely because of their effective hydrological engineering. Even private landowners are encouraging their presence, though often within fenced areas.

“They are the quintessential ecosystem engineers. And they do this work for free,” ecologist James Byers of the University of New Hampshire recently told New Scientist in an article by Gail Vines about Europe’s embrace of the beaver. “We are finally seeing an eco-saint where once we saw a sinner,” Vines writes. She argues that beavers not only create habitats for wildlife, boost water quality because their dams trap sediment, and reduce the twin threats of drought and flooding, but that “the beaver could even be an invaluable ally in battling the effects of climate change.”

If beavers are permitted to help reverse wetland losses, frogs will be among the happy beneficiaries. A recent study by Cam Stevens of the University of Alberta found that frogs were critically dependent on beaver ponds in that province. There were far more frogs in streams beaded with beaver ponds, than in streams with no beavers. The shallow, quiet beaver ponds offer warmth, protection and food, in the form of algae, to growing tadpoles.

With more options in Ontario, frogs are not as dependent on beaver ponds as their Albertan relatives. However, beaver ponds undoubtedly enhance overall frog numbers here as well. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has designated 2008 as the Year of the Frog, to raise awareness about the looming extinction of up to one third of the world’s frog species. Perhaps beavers can help keep our frogs from joining the endangered ranks.

And the beavers’ positive impact extends beyond wetland creation. When beavers exhaust their food supplies; when they finally gnaw through the aspen, willow, alder and yellow birch growing close to their pond, they are forced to move. Eventually the dam crumbles and the pond drains. What remains is known as a beaver meadow, a deposit of rich sediment that erupts in a profusion of life, abuzz with bees and hummingbirds and green with herbs and grasses, providing food and habitat to a host of wildlife.

Unlike in Europe, beavers are doing well in Canada and are now common almost everywhere south of the high Arctic. Though still trapped in great numbers, they are no longer subject to the wholesale slaughter of yesteryear. The most intensive trapping occurs on Crown land north of here. Still, in the trapping season of fall 2006 through winter 2007, Greg Cull of the Ministry of Natural Resources reported 1,037 beavers trapped in Dufferin and Simcoe counties.

Beaver at work. Last year’s trapping season saw 1,037 beavers trapped and killed in Dufferin and Simcoe counties. Photo by Robert McCaw.

Beaver at work. Last year’s trapping season saw 1,037 beavers trapped and killed in Dufferin and Simcoe counties. Photo by Robert McCaw.

However, that number does not include “nuisance” beavers trapped out of season – that is, trapped from April to late October because of perceived damage to property. In those months, a beaver’s pelt is past its prime and of little value. Trappers are not obligated to notify the ministry about beavers they don’t plan to skin and sell. According to Mike Giles, chief building official for Dufferin County, sixty-seven “nuisance” beavers – responsible for blocking culverts and municipal drains – were trapped in Dufferin last year; most would have been unreported.

Ontario’s Game and Fish Act also allows private landowners to destroy animals if the owner deems the animals to be damaging their property. Some landowners shoot the offending animals. Others complain to government agencies – sometimes with complaints similar to Verena Conley’s. After escaping city life for the country, she wrote a book called The War Against the Beavers. In it, she explains: “I wanted a forest, but a clean forest with a sparkling creek and not one with stagnant waters and trees lying around every which way across the creek. I did not pay top dollar for a beaver pond!”

When Bob Morris of Credit Valley Conservation receives a complaint he first tries to explain to the landowner about the good things beavers do for the environment and about non-lethal options to control them. “I’m surprised,” he says, “once you educate landowners on the ecological role beavers play, understanding and appreciation often follow and all of a sudden the presence of beavers is not a problem.”

Ron Allen of MNR Aurora responds to complaints in much the same way. “Most people would like the beavers to live. Most are looking for alternatives to trapping,” he says. However, both men concede that the landowners have the final say. If they want the beavers gone, they’re gone.

Audrey Tourney has little patience with that attitude: “If we have trees that we don’t want the beaver to touch, well, we better fence them off,” she insists. “As for the flooding, it is all part of a natural cycle. The land needs water. As humans we want everything our own way. We are not very wise about looking after our land.”

Bob Morris thinks that beaver problems would be less severe if the “flood lines” established by conservation authorities had been drawn “to accommodate beaver flooding” in anticipation of the inevitable arrival of beavers along a stream.

David M. Carroll in Swampwalker’s Journal suggests ceding the management of floodplains to the beavers: “… beavers can be thought of as the consummate wildlife managers. We should have learned long ago to simply leave the proper natural space, to respectfully withdraw and let wildlife manage wildlife.”

Of course there are times when dealing decisively with beavers is necessary, such as when their waterworks flood roads and municipal drains in agricultural fields. Dufferin’s Mike Giles says the townships of Amaranth and Melancthon are particular problem areas. Doug Price, Amaranth’s roads superintendent, estimates his department deals with about ten beaver-plugged culverts every spring and two or three municipal drains. In such cases, dams are broken up with an excavator. Then a trapper is retained and he sends the beaver tails to the county as proof of his success in destroying the beavers.

Trapping tends to be the default option of most roads departments, but there are numerous alternatives. Those include beaver fences and weirs, culvert pipes and beaver pipes. The products have such names as the Clemson Pond Leveler, the Millette Culvert, and the Beaver Stop, Beaver Baffler and Beaver Deceiver. Admittedly none guarantee 100-per-cent success and all require some maintenance, but most are effective and can guard against beaver problems for many years, without the need to kill beavers.

Most of these alternatives are described in The Beaver Handbook produced by Northeast Science and Technology and available from the MNR and conservation authorities. Wetkit, a production of Environment Canada and Ducks Unlimited, also provides a wealth of information on non-lethal beaver control (available at www.wetkit.net).

If non-lethal beaver control options are effective, should problem beavers be trapped at all? Trappers argue they should, for they see their role as a necessary substitute for absentee predators. “Beaver predators are slim to none now. Man has forced them out,” says Erwin Parker, a trapper in Caledon. He says the situation has given beavers free rein to go forth and multiply – and cause untold damage to property.

While Audrey Tourney acknowledges that predators have disappeared, she argues that trapping is unnecessary. “Beavers limit their own reproduction based on available resources,” she says, explaining that beavers have larger families when times are good and smaller ones when times get tough.

In fact, to Tourney, lethal trapping of any kind is barbarism. She has cared for, rehabilitated and released scores of beavers over almost four decades. She knows beavers. She knows their habits, their behaviours and their moods. Like Grey Owl, aka Archibald Belaney – who gave up trapping beavers after adopting two small beaver kits and falling under their spell – Tourney has been a privileged participant in the private lives of beavers. Her experiences provide compelling testimony in support of banning beaver trapping entirely.

Beavers respond to the death of family members with human-like emotion. Photo by Robert McCaw.

Beavers respond to the death of family members with human-like emotion. Photo by Robert McCaw.

After a conservation officer presented Tourney with an orphaned beaver thirty-six years ago, “Beavers became the delight of my life,” she says. “In my experience, and I have raised everything from squirrels to wolves, the beaver is the most intelligent. They can also be very caring.” She tells the story of a female beaver that had been hit by a car and arrived at her sanctuary with its hind legs paralyzed. A beaver already in residence seemed to recognize the infirmity and became her caregiver, bringing food to her and pushing her from behind to help her move.

Beavers respond to the death of family members with human-like emotion. Audrey Tourney has witnessed this many times, as did Grey Owl. So did Dorothy Richards, a woman who built a sanctuary for beavers in New York State many years ago. In her book, Beaversprite, she describes beaver parents who lost a baby: “Day after day the two sat mute, doing nothing, huddled together and eating practically nothing.”

According to Tourney, beavers can demonstrate an uncanny empathy not just with other beavers, but humans as well. She recalls an incident with a beaver that was sharing her house (yes, just like a dog or cat): “He was sleeping when I received a call that one of my best friends had died. As I sat in quiet reflection the beaver woke up, got up on my knees, put his hands on my shoulders and sat for half an hour with his cheek against mine.”

Dorothy Richards also found that beavers possess “rare sensitivity.” About one beaver, she wrote, “She responded to my moods of both depression and happiness more fully than any human companion I had known.” Richards also noted that, “beavers taught me the noble qualities of gentleness, kindness, persistence and forbearance.” And Grey Owl preferred the company of beavers to dogs. In Pilgrims of the Wild, he wrote, “[The beaver], playful, industrious, and articulate, fulfilled my yearning for companionship as no other creature, save man, could ever have done.”

Perhaps these stories are sentimentalized. However, evidence abounds that beavers experience a range of emotions, and that they are intelligent and social animals, as utterly dependent on relationships with other beavers as humans are with other people. If we truly knew the beaver, says Tourney, we wouldn’t countenance trapping them any more than we would trap our pet dog.

As for Verena Conley, her outrage about having beavers on her land ended with an epiphany: “We now simply let [beavers] be in the forest … the beavers produced, albeit slowly, true diversity in the wilderness.

About the Author More by Don Scallen

Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".

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