by Whit Gibbons

April 21, 2003

We recently caught a full-grown beaver in a mammal trap we had set on land for research involving raccoons. We let the big rodent go where we found him. But sometimes encounters with these industrious creatures are not so easily solved. In an environmentally conscious society like ours, we will always face perplexing wildlife problems and environmental dilemmas. Beavers offer a good example of the complexity of such issues.

Beavers have some positive traits. They are cute, especially a chubby baby beaver dragging a little paddlelike tail behind him. Tame ones, babies or adults, can safely be allowed to eat out of your hand. A family of beavers in a lake can delight people who enjoy observing animal behavior.

If they do not feel threatened, beavers will busily go about building their lodge, swimming about as a cooperative family unit. A person can easily be charmed by their diligent work and friendly temperament. People often view their hard-working nature as a positive trait that would be desirable to acquire. A contented beaver family can be heard making mewing sounds to one another. Anyone living along a lake with beavers can have a rewarding wildlife experience and a lesson in social behavior.

The experiences, however, can unfold into predicaments. Sometimes the costs of having your own beaver family can outweigh the benefits. The predicament is how to keep beavers for outdoor show-and-tell yet have them behave.

Residents around one local lake told me with pride of their small beaver colony. Then the beavers cut down and carried away six boxwood shrubs planted the previous afternoon. The next night, as if to underscore the situation to their previously admiring audience, the beavers expertly felled a flowering pink dogwood tree. Landowners with a nearby family of beavers might understandably be concerned about the welfare of their trees and shrubs. The largest tree known to have been cut down by beavers was a cottonwood that was almost six feet in diameter.

In another situation beavers decided that the water level of a homeowner's lake was too low to suit them. They proceeded to dam up the overflow point, flooding the person's yard. The lake owners removed the beaver dam, a decidedly temporary solution. Beavers, which do not care for running water, will repair a broken dam within hours. In addition, the beavers burrowed under the road and weakened the foundation of the house.

Another beavers-versus-humans confrontation involved a new boathouse, inside which beavers soon built a lodge. The boathouse beavers were at first considered cute; their appeal evaporated when they used the boathouse pilings to increase the size of their lodge. Do you get rid of the beavers or forfeit your personal property?

The problem was compounded in each instance because the people had grown fond of the beavers and did not want to hurt them. A standard way to remove beavers, with a steel snap trap that kills the animal, does not qualify as "not hurting." So the human victims sought ways to live trap the beavers unharmed. But what do you do with a live, captured beaver?

Regional zoos have a limited demand for beavers, so this option is soon exhausted. Releasing them in another lake or stream in the vicinity is not fair to whoever lives there. Besides, beavers will return to their former home if the distance is not too great. Beavers put the issue of nuisance wildlife on a personal scale, and no simple answer exists about what to do. Two contrasting alternatives are apparent: kill the beavers or accept the destruction of property. In some situations protective measures such as fences or retainer walls may work.

In each of the three cases above, the people facing a beaver problem were concerned about the welfare of the offending animals. But each homeowner solved the problem in a different way--one used steel traps; one protected the shrubbery with a chain-link fence; and one allowed the boathouse to be transformed into a beaver lodge. Beavers offer a compelling example of the complexity of environmental conundrums and the range of answers available depending on your environmental conscience. How would you have solved each problem?

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