By Jim Poling Sr.
Thinking about putting the dock away for winter brings painful memories. And, nasty thoughts about Canada’s favourite rodent – Castor canadensis, commonly known as the beaver.
Every fall I tow my dock to a quiet bay away from the lake’s natural ice flow. It stays there until spring, safe from crushing ice movements.
This past spring, as reported earlier, I towed the dock back to its summer place, I noticed it was not floating normally. A closer look revealed two floats were missing. An even closer look revealed the boards holding the floats in place had been chewed away. The chew marks were distinctly beaver.
Beaver had decided that my dock, sitting quiet in a frozen bay, would make a good home. Some renovations were required, which is no problem for these industrious wilderness engineers.
It certainly was a problem for me. I had to rip the decking off, rebuild some framing, install new floats and then nail the deck boards into place. I was furious and thinking about revenge and punishment.
My anger cooled when I began reading how others who have suffered property damage from beavers are trying to live with them despite the problems they can cause.
Beaver are being reintroduced in Britain where they were hunted to extinction more than two centuries ago. There is a campaign to ‘build back beaver’ because they repair damaged ecosystems and create more natural and diverse habitats.
Attitudes about beavers also are changing in the United States. Some states believe beavers can be important partners in the fight against the effects of climate change. California has designated $1.5 million a year to restoring beaver populations that it believes will improve climate resiliency and biodiversity.
“We need to get beavers back to work,” California’s natural resources secretary said during a webinar this year. “Full employment for beavers.”
Beavers store water – lots of it with their cleverly engineered dams – which is crucial in western states parched by drought. Some ranchers in the American west report that during severe drought their cattle have been kept alive with water from beaver pools.
Also, studies have found that beaver dams increase the amount of dissolved organic carbon in rivers and in trapped sediments. Carbon is an essential element for all forms of life.
Beavers are only one of two mammals who can alter their habitat to suit themselves and protect their interests. The other mammal is us humans.
However, humans and beavers have different ideas about how to engineer their environments. Those different ideas often create conflicts that usually do not turn out well for the beaver.
Beavers create conflicts when they damage our stuff. They topple trees that we don’t want toppled and flood areas that we want to remain dry. The human response usually has been to dynamite their dams and kill off their populations.
The conflicts between us and the beavers do not have to be addressed with violence. Paint and fencing will protect trees and other chewables from beaver gnawing.
There also are systems that use pipes to drain beaver ponds, encouraging beavers to move to other areas that might benefit from their engineering.
“We cannot afford to work against them any longer,” two scientists wrote this year in the research journal WIREs Water. “We need to work with them.”
The trend to working with beaver is being seen in various places around the world but is still in its infancy. Beaver colonies are increasing, however, and the world beaver population now is estimated at six to 12 million.
There are no accurate estimates of how many beaver now exist in Canada, where the fur trade trapped them to near extinction by the mid-1800s. All we know is that their numbers are increasing, certainly in Ontario.
I can understand how working with the beaver can be beneficial. Their dams help to sustain important wetlands and create healthy environments for birds, fish and insects. Ontario reports that where beaver numbers have grown, so has biodiversity.
I am willing to forgive and forget and to accept that working with beavers is better than working against them.
My change of heart does have one condition – leave my dock alone this winter.