Faithful readers know that I have become a beaver believer. For most of the time that Chesapeake Bay has existed, millions of beavers have inhabited every nook and cranny of the six-state watershed (and most of North America).
By building dams, digging and creating ponds, rodents controlled the hydrology of the continent and shaped the landscape in such a way as to provide deeply cleaner and clearer water to streams, rivers and estuaries. Their work has also created rich habitats for a host of other air and swamp dwellers.
So the premise of a neighbor Journal of the Bay movie, Water’s Way: Think like a watershed, is that a greater number of beavers – practically trapped in the 1750s – could provide a significant and cost-effective boost to the restoration of the bay.
But humans have expanded their presence in the area since the heyday of the beavers, from about 165,000 Native Americans to some 18 million moderns, and that obviously prevents maximum re-beaver.
Yet the potential is immense. Beavers adapt even to highly developed places; we filmed beautiful wetland complexes they built behind a royal farmhouse in the cobblestone heart of Baltimore’s White Marsh-Middle River urbanization.
And they’re relentless, bundles of instinct and compulsion, constantly expanding their projects up and down with each flow, always exploring the next turn, and the next, and the next (much like humans).
So what environmentalists call the “carrying capacity” – the physical habitat – for returning beavers abounds. The real issue is “cultural carrying capacity”: the willingness of landowners and governments to welcome a creature that chews trees, clogs drainage routes, and floods landscapes for a living.
The Journal of the Bay The film I’m working on with Dave Harp and Sandy Cannon-Brown aims to expand that cultural carrying capacity, show why we need to stand up for beavers (and emulate them), and show that there are relatively simple and inexpensive ways. for humans and beavers to coexist. (If you can’t wait for the movie, search the web for “Beaver Institute for Beaver Conflict Resolution”.)
But the reporter in me is warning whoever believes in me not to sell too many beavers or portray them as quick and easy fixes to the health of the bay. Beavers don’t give a damn about restoration goals or coexistence with humans. They are too busy being beavers.
To be our salvation does not mean to be our friends.
When beavers take hold, their flooding and chewing can initially degrade forests, creating a more open and sunny complex of braided stream channels and overgrown vegetation, which to many people feels messy.
People more ecologically sophisticated than me (The Nature Conservancy) have trapped beavers that destroy nesting trees for great blue herons. After trapping, the herons moved anyway, for reasons known only to the herons.
The beavers that agricultural researcher and farmer Ken Staver initially welcomed to his farm mined a dirt road, causing a transporter to overturn and several tons of corn to be spilled into the water. Ken still loves beavers, but now with more caution and a bit of trapping to keep them in check.
Allie Tyler, who owns a large property near Easton, has made it a game in retirement, letting her beavers plug up a pond plug every night, then remove it during the day with her backhoe.
He showed us a huge pile he made of mud and sticks, estimated at several tons, representing the work of a pair of beavers for only a few months. “No doubt who’s going to win in the long run,” Tyler said.
One of our main filming areas is a multi-acre beaver complex behind Boordy Vineyards in northern Maryland, where the landowners used a simple pond leveling device to control the flooding while leaving enough water. depth to make beavers feel safe.
But the beavers have children (kits), and the children grow up and seek to build their own ponds, moving upstream and downstream, meeting other landowners and land uses. To date, this has resulted in more entrapment and elimination than acceptance.
Outdoor enthusiast and naturalist, Kai Hagen, an individual member of Frederick County Council in Maryland, is an avid beaver and has welcomed generations of creatures to his lands in the County’s Catoctin Mountains. He has happily spent years building fences from fallen forest branches around trees at a height (about 4 feet) that protects them from beavers. But, he admits, “there are limits”.
Biologists who work for state and federal governments with cold-water fish species like brook trout are very skeptical of re-beaver. They fear the ponds will slow the flow and allow the water to heat up too much for the trout, already besieged by other environmental problems. Beaver dams can also block fish migration.
There is a lot of evidence regarding salmon and beavers in the West that such fears can be largely misplaced, but no such research has been done in the eastern United States.
At one of our filming locations, Bear Cabin Branch in Harford County, MD, neighbors were horrified by the appearance of a restored stream where beavers settled and thrived. Then their kids started playing in the pond and catching bass, and people mostly got used to the more shaggy look of the beaver landscape.
Likewise, some farmers have become aware of the superb duck hunt where beavers settle, and they see the potential of their own acreage for waterbird sport and income.
Sometimes I was surprised at the tolerance for beavers. I was stopped by a farmer while searching around his creek for beaver tracks. He had a bolt-action rifle resting in the front seat of his pickup.
When I told him what I was doing, he laughed, “Oh, yeah, they’re here. Some people say get rid of it, but you never will … these animals are God’s own engineers.