Beaver

 

(This 1082nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on December 18, 2011.)

 

Absent through the past decade, beaver have reappeared in the Buffalo Audubon Society Beaver Meadow Sanctuary in Java. They have built two dams, one separating the upper and lower ponds and the other further downstream. Their lodge is on Ghost Pond, recently acquired by the society.

 

When society executive director Loren Smith told me that he is delighted to have them back, I was a bit surprised. I have become accustomed to landowners complaining to me about beavers damming up local creeks and flooding their property.

 

But Smith has every reason to welcome them to Beaver Meadow. Over the years they have been absent lake levels receded several feet and their dams are replenishing that water. "And we have plenty of trees to feed them," he adds.

 

This beaver family is replaying in a small way the history of the species in North America. Early trappers found them widespread and very common. In 1624, two years before Manhattan Island was purchased from local Native Americans, 1500 pelts were shipped to Europe by Dutch traders and that number rose to an estimated 80,000 pelts a year by 1700.

 

The fur was removed from the pelt leaving a thin felt that was shaped into hats. The stovepipe hat was just one of the beaver hat styles that were popular for three centuries ending in about 1850 when silk hats replaced them. Expense probably played a role in the decline of their use because by the mid-1800s beaver were already extirpated from much of their former range. By about 1910 only a few beaver remained in remote areas. Even in the Adirondacks they were unknown to many local guides.

 

Game managers aided their repopulation through trap and transfer programs and harvest restrictions. Unfortunately, this got out of hand and by the mid-1990s the estimated 17,500 beaver colonies were already well over the statewide goal of 14,000. In 1993 alone, beaver damage was reported at 2000 sites resulting in an estimated $5.5 million in property losses and those numbers have increased since then.

 

One reason beavers have thrived is the fact that their predators are mostly gone. Beavers are big animals, usually weighing from 30 to 75 pounds. They are also excellent swimmers able to stay underwater as long as 15 minutes and they rarely stray far from water so adults are safe from all but the odd bear -- and us.

 

That is the downside of our state mammal. On the other hand, anyone who has watched their dam building or observed one swimming until, alerted by your presence it suddenly slaps its tail and dives, has to feel affection for these industrious animals. As is so often the case with humans as well as animals, a few are okay; big numbers not so great.

 

The Beaver Meadow pair has already erected its house and dug an underwater entrance tunnel that rises into two above water level chambers: the first a vestibule where the animals dry out, the second a cozy room well protected by the mound's thick walls. Like the bricks of the third pig's nursery rhyme house, those walls serve the beavers well. Once they are frozen they have the consistency of cement. A small ceiling air vent provides necessary oxygen.

 

The beavers will be safe in their lodge until spring unless the nearby water freezes all the way to the bottom of the lake their dams have formed. Beavers do not hibernate and remain active all winter. They feed on the inner bark of trees, usually saplings that they have cut down with their sharp teeth and pulled into their pond near their home. They also eat cattails and water lilies but not fish.

 

Winter is also the season for beavers to make love. They pair for life and, if they are three years old or more, they will mate very soon. For them, "Tonight's the night," has real meaning for the female comes into estrus just 24 hours each year. Her gestation will then last for a bit over four months and in May or June she will bear between two and six kits.

 

Hopefully, next summer Beaver Meadow visitors will be able to watch the activities of these new offspring.-- Gerry Rising