Why now is the time to embrace the beaver

Victor Wong

The Castor canadensis is a common cottage foe. But it needn’t be. In episode 3, season 4 of the Cottage Life Podcast, we hear why now’s the moment to embrace the beaver. To listen to more episodes, click here.

Before we could bury it in the shallow waters behind our small Georgian Bay island, we had to tug the beaver’s corpse to the opposite shore, a marshy area lined by silvery birch trees and guarded by glinting white quartz. The creature had already sunk to the murky bottom, and we were forced to manoeuvre it with the long flukes of an anchor.

When we’d finally hauled it into the shallows, my father, brother, and I silently observed the beaver’s powerful tail that looked like a thick paddle and its slick fur that seemed resistant to water. We studied its impressive teeth, long and curved for chewing, coloured a deep, startling orange.

There was a sombre mood in my family that day many years ago, but also an undeniable feeling of recompense.

For years we’d lived peacefully with the beavers who made a lodge on a neighbouring island. We’d watch them motoring through the inky water as the sun was setting and mosquitoes descending. Occasionally they’d thwack their tails at night, and we’d tell one another they were greeting us. We’d fish for minnows near their lodge and collect branches they’d stripped so smooth they gleamed on the fireplace mantle.

But then the beavers started mowing down the rare stands of birch and oak on our mostly coniferous island, and we were no longer so charmed.

Like many cottagers, I come from a long line of beaver battlers. My late grandfather on my mother’s side regularly used dynamite to blow up beaver dams that caused flooding near the small Quebec lake where he had a cabin. He admired the creatures’ industry—and even developed an extensive collection of small castor figurines made of brass, ceramic, and soapstone—but at that cabin or walking the streets of Montreal in a long, beaver fur coat, he considered himself very much their master.

My own father has remained in a struggle with this large rodent into his 80s. But last spring was, I hope, the final skirmish in this epic contretemps.

To truly understand the arc of this battle, it’s important to know that my father is one of the most industrious humans you are ever likely to encounter. He paints and fixes, sands, glues, epoxies, and plumbs. He plants vegetables, makes boats and furniture, he devises devices and develops defenses against all manner of critter. He doesn’t walk if he can jog. When he asks you to help do something, you’d better get on it quickly, or you’ll find he’s good-naturedly done it already. All of which is to say, he’s a worthy adversary for the hardworking Castor canadensis.

So last spring when it became apparent that the dock in the back bay was in the process of becoming a beaver lodge, impeding boat and human traffic, my dad settled in for some trench warfare. Each night, the creature would chew down the deciduous trees on the island, leaving sharp, pointed stumps in its wake. It would then drag both small and large branches, as well as entire six–metre–long trees underneath the dock, securing them in the muck of the bay. Each morning, my dad would come down to inspect his nemesis’s handiwork. Wielding a rusty, long-handled garden hoe, he’d fish out the branches, tugging and pulling them from the mud and dragging them back onto shore where he tossed them on a tangled mound that grew to several metres high. It became a family affair as the rest of us and even guests were employed in this daily deterrence strategy. My father replaced the nails in the dock with screws so he could inspect the beavers’ work and expose their habitation. He dreamed up a complicated barrier using high-grade chicken wire that he planned to attach underneath from one side of the dock to the other. There was even talk of trapping the offending creature. Yet each night, the beaver stubbornly continued its construction project.

My family, of course, is not the only one reckoning with how to manage beaver engineering. All over North America, farmers, landowners, and municipalities worry about the flooding of agricultural land and roads as a result of damming. They wring their hands about the loss of trees, as well as the hazards beavers create with the branches they cut down. There are many who respond by trapping, relocating, or killing the animals.

But ingenious people have also developed endless contraptions, including devices such as the Beaver Baffler, the Beaver Deceiver, and the Castor Master, non-lethal methods for reducing the negative effects of beaver construction on the land while protecting the creatures and their habitat.

Indeed, a recent wave of scientific research suggests we all have an interest in managing and maintaining a healthy beaver population. These buck-toothed vegetarians are an essential element of biodiversity—a keystone species upon which entire ecosystems rely. They might be pesky, but beavers are also climate change warriors at the forefront of the crisis. Indeed, in an effort to support struggling ecosystems, beavers are actually being reintroduced in places, such as the U. K., where they thrived before being hunted to extinction in the 16th century.

By building shallow ponds and dams, beavers create new wetlands, which provide habitat for wildlife, waterfowl, and fish. These wetlands filter and store water—which actually cuts down on property and landscape damage from stormwater flooding.

Beaver ponds and wetlands also help maintain surface water in times of drought and reduce the impact of forest fires. Following the 2021 wildfires in Oregon that devastated tens of thousands of hectares of environmentally significant land, scientists discovered two lush hectares of untouched greenery that were the result of active dams. Not only had these wetlands been saved from the flames, the dams and ponds the beavers made created a natural water filtration system that cleaned up the ash and dangerous pollutants resulting from the fire. Upstream from the dams, the water was thick with black sludge, while downstream, trout were thriving and the water was clear.

It took some discussion and reading, but understanding the creature’s climate hero bona fides finally turned the tide in our local beaver’s favour. After all, in addition to being industrious, my dad is one of the original cottage climate champions, a seasoned saver and reuser, an early adopter of solar panels, electric boats, and composting toilets.

We decided to adopt a new approach to living with our beaver overlords, one based not on abolition but peaceful coexistence. There will undoubtedly be compromises as we learn to live with the creature’s relentless drive to chew in exchange for drought and flood protection, plus wetland habitat for dozens of species of flora and fauna. We’ll try to protect particularly tasty trees with metal cages circling the trunk, or a mixture of sand and latex painted around the base. And already, we’ve installed a new dock with hard plastic flotation to replace the admittedly long-past-its prime, blue foam–filled old one the beavers attempted to colonize.

As the keystone species in our own particular family ecosystem, my dad has agreed to extend this, uh, birch branch to the beaver. Given their uncanny similarities, and their shared goal of a greener, cleaner world, he and the beaver are surely better allies than enemies.

Andrea Curtis is the author of Groundwood Books ThinkCities children’s books about sustainability and urban systems. The latest in the series, City of Neighbors, was published this spring.

This story was originally published as “It’s About Dam Time” in the August 2023 issue of Cottage Life.

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