Beaver Problems


(This 1119th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 2, 2012.)


I have just finished reading Jim Sterba's excellent book, Nature Wars (Crown). He places problems we face with wildlife here in western New York in the larger context of our country's natural history.


Sterba reminds us that now over half of our population resides in suburbs where we confront wildlife and much of the book addresses those confrontations. In three chapters, for example, he considers "The Elegant Ungulate", "Lawn Carp" and "The Fifty-Pound Rodent". Those titles refer to deer, Canada geese and beaver.


Reading this book represented perfect timing for me because the town in which I reside now faces another of what many consider only a local problem with wildlife, a few beavers cutting down some dedicated trees along Ellicott Creek in Amherst. What Sterba makes clear is the fact that, along with our deer and Canada geese, these are not local problems; they are national problems.


I suspect that less than one in several hundred of us have ever seen a beaver in the wild and that ratio soars even higher for those who have never seen one locally. For example, I have not seen one here, but I have seen the damage they have done.


Many think that they have seen beaver when they have actually seen the much smaller rodent of our marshes, the muskrat. Adult male beavers usually weigh 40 to 60 pounds, but a record Wisconsin beaver tipped the scales at 110 pounds.


If you have not yet seen a beaver, however, you soon will.


By 1894, beaver were almost completely extirpated from the Northeast and in New York only a single colony of five remained. Conservationists felt that we needed them. As Sterba points out, their dams could "recreate the rich wetland ecosystems that had long been regarded as useless swamps to be drained and destroyed." So 34 more were released in the Adirondacks and trapping them was outlawed.


Unfortunately, like Mickey Mouse's brooms in the Disney film Fantasia, the release got out of hand. The descendants of a single pair of beaver over a ten-year life span can number 600, and by 1995 the state beaver population was already estimated as 81,000. The result: not only were beaver downing trees but they were flooding roads, basements, wells, septic systems, sewers, railroad culverts and utility line towers. Sterba tells us, "Many experts believe that the cost of beaver damage is greater than that caused by any other wildlife species in the United States."


He then clarifies the issues this population explosion raises by describing the beaver trapping of a private animal control specialist: "Don LaFountain knew what he was doing. He also knew that being too obvious about it invited trouble. Sometimes people would stop and ask him, in an accusing way, what he was up to. He didn't blame them, he said. Most people in Massachusetts grew up in cities and suburbs and didn't know much about the natural world.


"LaFountain said people either loved him for solving their problems or loathed him for trapping and removing cute, furry animals. On occasion, people would confront him as he was carrying a live beaver in a trap back to his truck. 'You're not going to kill it, are you?' It was a question he tried to deflect by saying that the beavers were being treated humanely and that his methods were not only legal but had won the praises of animal protection groups. His customers, on the other hand, usually didn't ask. They wanted to assume that the animals causing their problems would be relocated to some place where they could live happily ever after." Of course, there is no such place; they are euthanized.


So now we have a face-off nationally as well as locally between those two groups: animal defenders vs. those faced with immediate problems. Animal control officers are caught in the middle.


Sterba shows how different we are today by describing a former activity: preparing a decapitated chicken for cooking. I once did that, my mother having wielded the axe. If more of us had that kind of experience rather than thinking of meat as growing in cellophane wrappers, we might better resolve the issues that separate us.


While Sterba offers no final solutions, his book represents an important contribution well worth reading.-- Gerry Rising