I’m trying something different today. Rather than post my review of this misguided article in my usual quippy way, I’m going to address the author directly, like an old friend sharing a beer. I’ve written him through his blog already so I’m sure he’ll check to see mine when he opens his mail. Here’s the article that got my attention:
OK last weekend I was spending way too much time at the millpond dam near my house. I was down there carrying a potato rake, a pitchfork, various shovels, and a collection of hearty oaths.
I was frequently covered with mud, and I was always covered with sweat. I was, as I explained in an earlier edition of the Journal, doing battle with beavers, or, to use a somewhat earthier catch-phrase gleaned from a character that represented the Ipana toothpaste franchise in the 1950s, Bucky ”bleepin’” or “F-ing” Beaver. “You’re going to lose,” I was told cheerily when I revealed the fight I had undertaken against this apparently implacable foe.
The folks gathered around the table at a monthly meeting of an environmental group I work with nodded their heads in agreement at this grim assessment. “Beavers always win… especially when all you have is a potato fork.” If I would put aside my liberal queasiness against the equally liberal use of nuclear weaponry, I might, was the consensus, have a fighting chance, but without the highest of high-powered arsenals, well, “You’ve read Don Quixote, right?”
Ahh Bruce. You need better environmental friends! Come sit at our table. Yes, the beavers are determined not to freeze solid during the coming winter months, and they’d like to be able to reach all that food they’re busy storing so they don’t starve either. They’re quirky that way. But if you want that dam lower we can tell you how to keep it there successfully. And it won’t involve TNT or clam rakes.
I couldn’t see any windmills on the horizon, and, in fact, I couldn’t see any beavers. That my foe was invisible was hardly surprising: Castor canadensis is, at the very least, crepuscular—active, that is, beginning at dusk—and the beavers I was confronting appeared to be downright nocturnal. I’ve found no signs of a permanent lodge. I can’t spot any suggestions of gnawed-down trees and shrubs. Ghost critters or not, they’ve certainly made their presence unmistakable.
In front of the dam is a wall of mud, perhaps six inches high and foot wide. It’s reinforced with sticks and branches, many of which have been stripped of their nutritious bark—a beaver buffet item—and all of them showing signs of gnaw marks. Occasionally, I’ve found a beaver footprint, and if this wasn’t proof-positive of my invisible foe’s identity, consider the following.
Crepuscular? Have you checked the nutrition label on a willow leaf lately? Do you really think a 60 lb beaver is going to consume all the calories he needs by eating leaves an hour a day? And find time leftover to raise a family and make the repairs you’re complaining about? Beavers are NOCTURNAL. And the biologist who made up the other thing also believed no one could see him if he closed his eyes.
Indeed, it was the demise of the stream, a favorite hangout, which girded my loins for the fight. This nameless body of water has long been the home and, I suspect, nursery for a group of uncommon dragonflies known as Dragonhunters, large, fierce, and beautiful insects whose primary prey is fellow odonates, and I’d be hanged if I was going to let this creek be engineered out of existence. Now, when it comes to beavers, engineering is just what they do.
Nature’s master craftsmen have been creating, maintaining, and, when they consider it appropriate, recreating wetlands to meet their needs since the glaciers receded more than ten thousand years ago. It’s simply their nature to do this, and when they returned to our area, after being trapped to the point of local extinction, in the 1970s, we were to learn that, even when we humans might suggest, “Bucky, this area is fine as is and doesn’t require any improvement,” there’s no arguing with beavers.
Okay. This endears you to me, Bruce. You’re a stream keeper. You’re motivated by stewardship and want to prevent the stream from changes that will result in less biodiversity of the species you love to photograph. Me too!
(You take amazing photos by the way, you really should visit the beaver pond some evening before the month ends and try your hand at beaver photos. Poke around this website for a while and you’ll see the builders aren’t as impossible to see as you think.)
Hey guess who can help you take care of that creek you love? I’ll give you a hint. It has fur and a flat tail. Those deep pools have more to do with the brook trout and the turtles than you imagine. And those creek plants you love so much – guess who’s raising the water table so that their roots have something to drink? Beavers are the original creek stewards. Why not learn to work with them instead of against them?
And every night, for the past few weeks, the Castorean Conservation Corps has returned with mud, sticks, and impressive skills to undo my efforts.
Yes beavers fix repairs they believe are necessary for their family to survive the upcoming winter. Go Figure. Hey you’re good with tools and own a pair of waders. Why not buy Mike’s DVD and learn to install a flow device that will keep the dam at the height you can stand and still protects the beavers? It will save your creek and your sanity. Unwilling to spend a dime on these dam rodents? How about a free book that will teach you to do this as well? Or hey, if you don’t like being in the water, why not hire Mike Callahan or Skip Lisle to do it for you? They’re a phone call and a couple states away. We brought Skip out 3000 miles to solve our problem a decade ago. You’re getting off cheap.
Now, I’ll let you go. I’m glad we’ve had this little chat. I know you have a lot of reading to do. Start by watching our story to learn how the flow device controlled our dam height for ten years and how the beavers transformed our creek. Then go down some evening and actually watch the family you’re fighting with. There are a million fascinating columns in your future if you learn to appreciate the effect beavers have on wildlife and watersheds. Don’t believe me? Check out the writing of Vermont’s Patti Smith for the Battleboro Reformer, or Connecticut’s Ben Goldfarb for the High Country News.
Beavers are natural environmentalists. You guys should be best friends. Really.