Syd Schulz

 

What is it About Beavers?
By Syd Schulz

Lazy winter sunbeams slant across my desk and the professor drones on and on. I’m suffering through a history seminar in my senior year of college and my mind is miles away from the Middle Ages. Instead, for the first time in twelve years, I am thinking about beavers.

The nostalgia began a few hours earlier when I stumbled on a webpage titled “Best Management Practices for Human-Beaver Conflicts.” I experienced one of those profound, unsettling moments when you remember something you used to love, and realize you haven’t loved it for a long, long time.

The past twelve years have been busy ones—I hit puberty, I went to college, and I stopped pretending to be a beaver. In fact, I forgot I ever pretended to be a beaver. I forgot all the hours spent imagining myself swimming with webbed feet through secret underwater passages. I forgot the forts I constructed with my massive, imaginary front teeth. I even forgot (perhaps for the best) the school talent show where my best friends and I climbed on stage wearing brown felt tails and singing Smash Mouth’s “I’m a Believer,” the lyrics ingeniously revised to be (and maybe you see where this is going) “I’m a Beaver.”

The webpage reminds me of my eight-year-old self, on stage, sporting cardboard teeth (which, as a side note, make singing Smash Mouth without drooling an insurmountable challenge). I like the site’s pompous, authoritative title, the way it put beavers and humans on an equal playing field. I can just see it, three damp beavers sitting around a table with suited officers from the Vermont Division of Fish and Wildlife. The beavers struggle to find a place for their tails on the stiff chairs. The bureaucrats awkwardly offer coffee, which the beavers decline. And then they clear their throats and discuss their conflicts, like grown-ups.

The site emphasizes peaceable solutions, like the “installation of a beaver baffle,” or calling one of the many experts listed for help with your nuisance beavers. In the event that non-violent solutions fail, the site is ever pragmatic, providing a recipe section, which includes such gems as “Dick’s Roast Beaver” and “Beaver Burger Meat Loaf.”

And then I’m stuck—I can’t stop thinking about beavers. I wonder what they eat, how they survive the bitter New England winter, if their teeth are really that big. I watch Youtube videos of baby beavers and I email Teage O’Connor, a wildlife educator and biology professor at the University of Vermont who is something of a beaver whisperer.

He responds immediately and tells me that if I want a tour of his beaver pond I’m welcome to show up at his house in Burlington, Vermont, at three o’clock. He greets me at the door with a huge smile, wearing a blue flannel and a baseball cap with cartoon cows on it. I like him instantly.

O’Connor, 29, is someone who understands childhood fascination. He never grew out of his. He hands me a mug of blueberry tea and we sit in his living room and talk about beavers. He crouches on the couch, hugging his knees. He is someone who hates sitting still. He wiggles his toes, clothed in mismatched Smartwool socks, one blue, one green, and starts in on one of his favorite stories.

“I was like, I’m just gonna see how close I can get, so I got on all fours and started crawling out to this beaver, moving really slow and the beaver was just hanging out.” He grins, remembering the moment. “I was getting closer and closer, within arm’s reach, maybe a foot away. I could hear it breathing, I could hear it chewing, I could hear it moving the branch around.”

“And then what?” I prompt.

“And then I thought, I wonder if I could touch the beaver,” he says, shaking his head slightly to indicate that this was where he went wrong. “And then the beaver turned around, dipped into the water and swam away. It was like it heard what I thought and was like, nope, not today.”

O’Connor’s house is a few blocks from Centennial Park, the focus of today’s beaver tour. The University of Vermont owns this 65-acre plot of woodland. Each year, O’Connor teaches a class at UVM called Natural History of Centennial Park, in which students gather at his house for lecture before venturing out into the woods to make observations. The park is smooshed between UVM’s main campus and Interstate 89, a narrow band of forest with surprising ecological diversity, popular with locals, students, and beavers alike.

Last summer, when a family of beavers moved into a retainer pond on the edge of the park, O’Connor was excited to have them so close. UVM did not share his enthusiasm. Now, these beavers are the epicenter of an unwinding conflict between animal rights groups and the university. O’Connor is the beavers’ advocate, their representative in the human world. These are O’Connor’s beavers. He knows them, and they know him.
As we venture out into the snow and sub-freezing temperatures, O’Connor pulls on a zip-up sweater over his flannel and knee-high muck boots. The cold doesn’t faze him. As we walk towards the pond, he tells us about his beavers.

“A pair moved in here last June,” he says. “And then they adopted another pair, who came up from the Winooski River after a big storm. That’s unusual, to adopt another pair like that.”
I interrupt and ask how he knows which beavers are which. I mean, how does one go about telling beavers apart?

O’Connor seems surprised by the question. “Oh, I go by personality, mainly,” he says. Seeing my skepticism, he adds, “I spend a lot of time with them, I get to know their markings. Some have grey and brown patches. But, yeah, I go by personality.”

And then he launches into another one of his favorite stories, this one about Melvin, one of his all-time favorite beavers. Melvin once swam right up to his canoe. “He knew the sound of my voice,” he says. “We’d put out sticks of aspen for all the beavers, and they’d all come up and eat, but Melvin, he’d hang around for a bit.”

Melvin was caught in a trap set by UVM earlier this December. O’Connor found the body. That’s why we’re here today, tramping through the snow, a sort of Beaver Defense squad: me, O’Connor, Lori Kettler, a representative from the Green Mountain Animal Defense Fund and attorney for PETA, and John Aberth, a professional animal rehabilitator. We clamber over fallen trees and slide down the steep embankment to the retainer pond, which is surrounded by a high chain link fence topped with several layers of barbwire. (“These are urban beavers,” O’Connor jokes.) After finding Melvin’s body, O’Connor installed a game cam to see what was going on. When UVM Ground Services found the camera they called the police and had it cut down, although they were nice enough to return the camera to O’Connor. No one had thought to turn the camera off so it returned with several minutes of entertaining footage in which the Ground Services crew gripes freely about O’Connor and his beavers.

“They called me a renegade,” he says indignantly. “And they said that beavers carry rabies. Do you have any idea how rare that is?” Several pointed exchanges followed and padlocks appeared on the gates. “DANGER: Authorized Personnel Only” signs now adorn the fence.

“It must have been hard for you,” says John, looking out over the pond, “to find Melvin in the trap.”
O’Connor’s face hardens. “Yeah,” he says, “it was hard.”

We stare through the chain link at the frozen surface of the pond. Somewhere below the ice is a family of beavers, doing whatever it is beavers do to survive the long, hard, ice-bound winter, unaware of the turmoil that surrounds their presence, unaware of the four humans who stand gawking outside the fence.

***

So how do beavers survive when their pond ices over? From our post on the human side of the fence, the lodge appears to be nothing more than a lumpy pile of snow. But a small snowless patch at the top is a telltale sign of beaver presence. O’Connor calls it a chimney. This is the small hole that beavers leave at the top of their lodges. This is how they pull off the extraordinary feat of living below the ice for two to four months of the year. The chimney ventilates the lodge, pulling in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide. A well-built beaver lodge, insulated with frozen mud, can maintain a temperature above freezing even as thermometers approach zero degrees Fahrenheit.

The life of a winter beaver is simple and sparse. Before the ice froze, our family of beavers spent several months frantically stockpiling bark, roots, sticks and twigs. O’Connor comments that these particular beavers faced an interesting situation—the second pair of beavers, the ones from the Winooski river, arrived towards the end of the summer. The original beaver pair was stockpiling for two and then there were four. O’Connor worried that they wouldn’t have enough food for the winter so he and his teaching assistant Sam brought the foraging beavers a truckload of aspen in late fall. “They were running out of habitat around here,” he says, pointing to a slope of felled trees that bear the distinctive scaled pattern of beaver gnawing.

Luckily, the beaver has evolved to survive long, hard winters. Adult beavers pack on the pounds over the course of the summer, specifically in the tail. A beaver’s tail may have up to ten times as much fat in winter as it does in the summer. (“Man, this American Beech goes straight to my tail.”) As the cold sets in and ice freezes, the beaver huddles in his lodge and his metabolic rate slows to a crawl. Beavers don’t hibernate per se, but the adults are able to slow their metabolism down to the point where they can give most of the food to younger, still growing beavers (called yearlings and kits).

But none of this answers the real question. What do they do down there all winter? I’m tempted to imagine a cozy cabin with a crackling fire, the beaver curled up in a rocking chair with a good book (“Best Management Policies for Beaver-Human Conflicts,” perhaps), teakettle on the stove. But this, of course, is gross anthropomorphism and should probably be discouraged. As is usually the case, the truth is even cooler.

A beaver lodge is divided into several distinct ledges. The first ledge, at the entrance, houses the food cache. The second ledge doubles as foyer/mudroom and dining room. After entering the lodge, the beavers snack on bark from their stockpile and slowly drip-dry. The highest ledge is a dry platform for sleeping and grooming. This is where the beavers spend the majority of their time as they wait for the spring. I can’t stop myself from imagining the arguments that must ensue when young, overly eager beavers try to climb onto the dry platforms while sopping wet. I imagine it to be similar to the looks I receive from my housemates when I return from a hike covered in mud.

There is something about beavers that triggers my imagination. After meeting O’Connor and perusing the library I realize that I am not alone in this. I’m guessing that the beaver’s intriguing winter life is one of many reasons Arthur Radclyffe Dugmore termed beavers the “most interesting animal to-day extant” in his 1914 book, The Romance of the Beaver. Dugmore was a British painter and author, as well as one of the world’s first wildlife photographers. He was particularly attracted to beavers because, with their dark coats and tendency to come out at dusk, they presented a challenge for early photography. He cautions us in the introduction to not expect much from the photography as “the beaver do not lend themselves to pictorial efforts.”

The Romance of the Beaver is a wonderful little book for anyone who loves beavers and early 20th century prose. Not only does Dugmore go into excruciating detail on every aspect of beaver life (“When a sudden burst of speed is required the tail again comes into play, but only with a few strokes…”), he does so with pretentious authority. The first chapter, for example, is titled “The Beavers of North America. Their Habits of Life and Their Wonderful Engineering Feats.”

The underlying question, of course, is why beavers? What is it about beavers? Why didn’t Dugmore crown zebras or emu or armadillos (all undeniably weirder than the humble beaver) as the “most interesting animal extant?” Why did Enos A. Mills, another 19th century nature writer with a beaver fixation, write that “second place [after trees] in my affection for wilds things, this, I am sure, is filled by the beaver.” Why do we, as humans, like beavers so much?

If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s because they’re so busy. Who hasn’t seen the cartoons of cleverly monikered “busy beavers” wearing hardhats and examining their lodges with clipboards? Beavers display a sort of animal kingdom equivalent to the Protestant work ethic, rags to riches, the American Dream. For that, we love them. Beavers can erect a dam or fell a grove of trees overnight. One family of beavers can take down 300 trees in a single season, and they instinctively do so in a way that is much more sustainable than human logging. (Although this is probably not why Americans love beavers.) Beavers will continue working on a dam season after season, improving and expanding it to the point where, in the words of Enos A. Mills, “an aged beaver might rise upon the thousand-foot dam that held his pond and say ‘my grandparents half a dozen centuries ago commenced this dam’” assuming, of course, that beavers are prone to dramatic speeches.

Beavers are busiest in September and October as they stockpile food and mend holes in their lodge, preparing for the winter. They’re well outfitted for the job with nimble hands and claws and large, orange-colored teeth, perfect for gnawing through trees and creating that symbolic beaver landscape of wood chips and felled trees. Naturally this is hard on the teeth so beaver chompers never stop growing. In a cruel twist of irony, injured beavers who can no longer get out and chew sometimes die of starvation when their teeth keep growing and lock their mouth shut.

After their teeth, the beavers’ tails are their most important tool. Both Mills and Dugmore wax eloquent on the topic of the tail. “He works not only tooth and nail, but tooth and tail,” writes Mills. He goes on to say that “volumes have been written concerning [the beaver’s tail]” but I have yet to find any of these at the library. Beavers use their thick, flat tails as rudders and propellers while maneuvering through the water. They communicate a dangerous situation by slapping their tails against the surface of the water. Other beavers can hear the danger-slap from up to a kilometer away. Beavers can even carry mud and sticks in between their tail and their body. Mills dislikes this use of the tail, saying that it gives the beavers an “uncouth appearance.” The author prefers a more stately posture: “it is standing erect that the beaver is at his best.” Comments like these make it tempting to label Mills as a stuffy old grump, but I like to think of him more as an old man who has forgotten that his beavers aren’t human. He’s disappointed to see his darlings scuttling along the river bank, tail between legs, all “humped up.” They almost look like animals.

I see Mills and Dugmore as early 20th century versions of Teage O’Connor, probably fatter and more blustery and more likely to wear top hats, but with the same underlying passion for the natural world. These are men who will spend hours outside a beaver lodge, with wet feet and cold hands, waiting, observing, and noticing. “I do read some,” O’Connor says, “but mainly I like to know what I can observe.” This calm, this patience, results in discovery. Not mind-blowing scientific breakthroughs—smaller, simpler discoveries exciting because they reveal a connection between beaver and human, a moment of mutual understanding. This is the beaver slipping off the log just as O’Connor thinks about trying to pet him, and Melvin following the canoe. This is Dugmore allowing a beaver to come so close to his camera, to sniff it, to investigate it with human-like curiosity, intervening only when it becomes apparent that the beaver is about to eat the flashbulb.

***

When O’Connor found Melvin in the trap that day in early December his fury went beyond his personal connection with the beaver. O’Connor knows the futility of lethal trapping, and he also knows that a multitude of other, better options for dealing with beaver problems exist.
“I went into Ground Services [at UVM] and I was like, what is going on here,” O’Connor recalls. Ground Services Manager Rose Leland informed him that the beaver dams presented a flood risk and that trapping had been recommended as the best way to deal with the situation. “I was like, recommended by who? But why? Why would you do that?”

Trapping fails to fix a beaver problem 80 percent of the time. And even if it does work, it leaves behind an enticing, unoccupied culvert for the next beaver that happens along. In the words of Skip Lisle, inventor of the Beaver Deceiver, if you follow a lethal trapping method, “you have to kill all the beavers, every one of them, and you have to do in perpetuity.”

Lisle would know. He has devoted his life’s work to finding non-lethal solutions to beaver problems. Lisle is the ultimate Beaver Baffler, the owner and founder of the company Beaver Deceivers International. We spoke on the phone on a sub-zero Saturday in January. The heat in my apartment was being its typical finicky self so I sat wrapped in multiple blankets, feeling quite glad that I was not, in real life, a beaver. Lisle called me from his home in Grafton, Vermont, from the same house he grew up in. It was there in that house that Lisle learned his deep-seated love for wetlands.

“We had a beaver pond, I’m looking at it as we speak, in my front yard,” Lisle tells me. “So I had a real appreciation for beavers and the habitats they make from an early age.”

His childhood appreciation for beavers turned into a career. He went to graduate school at the University of Maine and received a Masters in Wildlife Management. He wrote his senior thesis on (you guessed it) beaver management. After finishing at UMaine he landed a job with the Penobscot Nation in Maine.
The Penobscots, Lisle says, “had a big problem.” Beavers routinely flooded the forest roads that crisscrossed the 150,000-acre Penobscot reservation. The Penobscots routinely shot the beavers. Then more beavers moved in and the cycle continued. The Penobscots asked Lisle if he could come up with a better solution. It was a huge challenge. Luckily, Lisle has ten years of construction experience and a lifetime’s understanding of wetlands. He began to construct devices to prevent beavers from clogging the culverts while still allowing them to build and flourish in the area. It was a learning process.

“Things would fail and I’d tear them out and try again,” Lisle recalls. “I was constantly learning more and improving my methods. I had a tremendous commitment to not failing.”

In 1995, Lisle coined the term Beaver Deceiver. The original Beaver Deceiver was a wooden, three-sided or trapezoidal-shaped fence that surrounded a culvert. The height and shape of the fence depended on the depth and flow of the water. The three-sided feature of the Beaver Deceiver meant the beavers had to dam away from the culvert. The farther away from the culvert they got, the less they could hear or feel the running water and the less they felt that instinctive push to dam, dam, dam. If all worked according to plan, they would eventually just leave the culvert and fence alone.

With the Beaver Deceiver, Lisle began to see the pay-off from years of hard work. In 1998, the Penobscot Nation became the largest landholder to beaver-proof their entire property without killing any beavers.
This was a huge success for Lisle. He eventually moved back to Grafton and started his business, Beaver Deceivers International. He developed new, innovative technologies. He started using round fencing instead of wooden and developed a pipe technology to, in his words, “filter water in and filter beavers out.” The round fencing surrounded the culvert and a pipe allowed water to flow through the dam that the beavers would inevitably construct. Lisle calls these later versions of the Beaver Deceiver, the Beaver Deceiver Deluxes. He also developed a pipe technology for beaver dams that don’t directly block a culvert or other human construction but might still raise water levels to dangerous levels. These pipes are inserted through the dams, allowing water to flow. He calls these set-ups Castor Masters, using the Latin term for beaver. He also invented a gate system to prevent beavers from damming up culverts while still allowing them and other critters to pass through. “It’s no good,” he says, “if you have beavers and turtles trying to cross a highway.”

Lisle is fiercely proud of the work he does. “You can’t just give somebody a blueprint and expect them to make a Beaver Deceiver,” he says. “The experience is crucial. You have to know how to handle different situations.”

It irks him that people have started using Beaver Deceiver as a generic term for any flow device. I get a stern lecture when I confuse the deceiver with the beaver baffle. “You have to understand that the term Beaver Deceiver has become wildly popular,” he says grumpily. “It’s used all around the world. But that’s not accurate. I coined all the terms I use and all the products.”

With his clients, Lisle is always thinking about the big picture—restoring wetlands. Beavers are an integral part of these wetlands and most people don’t realize that. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” he says. “People will ask what to do about a nuisance beavers and they’ll be told that trapping is the only way to deal with it. But that’s not true.”

When the beavers leave, the wetlands they created leave too. The dams dry up and blow away. The wetlands are gone.Beavers are North America’s keystone species. By rooting and gnawing for food a beaver serves as a furrier version of a Rototiller, bringing fresh nutrients up to the surface. Beavers break up wetland monocultures like cattails and reed grass and promote diversity in the landscape. The trees they fell provide new habitat for birds and other woodland creatures. And, somewhat ironically, their dams prevent serious flooding because the ponds act as catchments when water levels rise. Unlike manmade dams, beaver dams are easily navigable by fish like salmon and trout, and the ponds created by these dams support a diverse spectrum of organisms, from lily pads to fish to wetland birds. Without beavers, the entire ecosystem falters.

In Vermont, as in the rest of North America, beaver populations are still recovering from the fur trade. For centuries, beavers were exploited for their glossy brown pelts, which fetched handsome sums in London and Paris. The most valuable part of the beaver’s pelt, the barbed inner fur, made excellent felted caps. While beaver trapping continues today, there is, thankfully for both the beavers and fashion, much less demand for beaver fur caps.

However, by the time Enos Mills and Arthur Dugmore were writing, beavers were on the fast track to extinction. By the mid 19th century beaver populations had decreased from as many as 90 million before European settlement to around five or six million. Luckily, the beaver is resilient and writers like Mills and Dugmore brought the public’s attention to the humble aquatic rodent and the wetlands they so dutifully supervise. Many states began reintroducing the beaver in the 1920s and 30s. Today, there are around 15-20 million beavers in North America.

This is the story that Lisle tells his clients. The hardest part of his job is getting people to realize how important wetlands are, and how important beavers are to the wetlands. In most cases, a flow device makes economic sense, but that doesn’t mean everyone is eager to install one. While the cost of installing the device depends on a variety of factors, Lisle often quotes his clients at a price at around $2,500, a pretty good deal considering the device will last for decades. Trapping, on the other hand, is at best a temporary solution and is often costly in the long term. However, Lisle’s clients sometimes balk at the upfront cost. “Humans are funny creatures,” Lisle says. “I’m the same way in a lot of things. It’s hard to think long term.”

***

As for the beavers of Centennial Park, their fate is far from sealed. Teage O’Connor wasn’t the only person infuriated to find out about the trapping. Seven Days, a newspaper out of Burlington Vermont, published a series of stories about the issue: “UVM sets traps for Dam Building Beavers,” “Beavers Earn a Reprieve,” etc. All the articles feature a picture of O’Connor, standing on a beaver-hewn tree that protrudes into the pond. He stares stoically into the camera and you get the feeling that if it comes down to it, he’ll be standing there, putting himself between the beavers and harm. The Burlington community has rallied around the beavers. One reader comments on the Seven Days article and sums up the situation in four words: “I’m for the beavers!”

O’Connor is not at all surprised by this reaction. “People love Centennial Woods,” he says. “They love it because it’s an urban area and it’s a wild feeling place. But it’s also a charismatic place, there’s all that history there. People just have an attachment with the place.”

In late December, after the Seven Days articles, UVM caved to public pressure. They pulled the traps and acquiesced to hold a meeting. The meeting is presently scheduled for early February. Hopefully they’ll call in experts like Skip Lisle, who can talk them through the non-lethal options.

Lisle is still waiting for a call. “They haven’t called me in,” he says. “I wish they would. It sounds like just a simple flow device. I could solve the problem for decades.” He is silent for a second and then adds, “I’m always disappointed when academic establishments promote themselves as green and then when it comes to beavers, they just kill them.”

O’Connor agrees with Lisle. He thinks a flow device would fix the University’s main concern—that a rise in water level would cause a flood. Even though he’s angry he understands the difficulty of UVM’s position.
“Management is a really difficult thing to do well. There are an infinite number of factors to consider,” he says. “When you’re managing an area, you’re trying to play God.”

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