Rethinking the beaver (Page 1 of 2)
Has there ever been a national symbol more loathed or misunderstood? Has there ever been a more important time for the beaver to flourish?
By Frances Backhouse
|The focus of North America’s first natural resource stampede, beaver pelts attracted legions of traders (Photo: C.W. Mather, Ernest Brown and Boone & May/C-001229/Library and Archives Canada)
At the turn of the 19th century, many people
thought Canada’s national animal was a goner — a doomed
species that had passed the point of no return. One notable
pessimist was Horace T. Martin, a Canadian Fellow of the
Zoological Society of London and author of Castorologia or
the History and Traditions of the Canadian Beaver
. “As to
the ultimate destruction of the beaver, no possible question
can exist,” declared Martin in 1892, noting that “the evidences
of approaching extermination can be seen only too
plainly in the miles of territory exhibiting the decayed
stump, the broken dam and deserted lodge.”
One hundred and twenty years later, on a warm June
evening, I sit on the shore of a massive beaver pond in
Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, watching water bugs
etch ephemeral lines on the glassy surface. I chose a spot
near the long, curved dike that contains the pond at this
end. From this vantage, the structure is unremarkable.
Viewed from downstream, as I would do later, it stands an
impressive two metres high, a thick, angled rampart of
sticks, mud and sprouting greenery.
Within 10 minutes of my arrival, one of the dam builders
appears. At first, it looks like a plank of waterlogged wood,
but as it nears, I start to make out details:
knobby ears, black-bead eyes, water-slicked
mahogany fur. When it gets close enough
that I can see its nostrils flaring, I expect a
startled dive. Instead, it approaches to within
a metre of the shore and cruises back and
forth in front of me for several minutes.
Peering down into the tea-coloured water, I observe the
ruddering action of its tail and the slow, alternating kicks
of its webbed hind feet. Its small front paws remain tucked
close against its chest. The beaver watches me intently and
intermittently emits a low rumble that sounds like a cross
between a growl and a purr. Finally, it swims over to the
dam, clambers out of the water and stands as if posing for
the Canadian nickel, then belly-flops back into the pond
and paddles away. How pleased Horace T. Martin would
have been to know his prognosis was wrong.
The beaver revival is, indeed, one of the continent’s
great conservation success stories; beavers are thriving
throughout their traditional territory in North America.
But as beavers continue to multiply, not everyone is
cheering them on. Each year, the average adult beaver
cuts approximately one metric tonne of wood — about
215 trees — for food and building materials. Not only
do we complain when they compete with us for timber
or meddle with the scenery, we also object when their
dams flood highways, farm fields and waterfront real
estate. In 2010, one even killed a husky in a suburban
park in Red Deer, Alta.
Yet a growing body of research suggests
that we need more beavers not
fewer, that beavers perform a vital service
to the riparian world that will be particularly
needed in the drought years ahead.
It may be an argument Canadians don’t
want to hear.
Before the European invasion of North America
began in the late 1400s, beavers inhabited almost all of what
we now call Canada and the United States, plus a sliver of
northern Mexico. Except for the driest western deserts and
the alligator-patrolled swamps of the Florida peninsula, they
ranged from coast to coast and from just south of the Rio
Grande to the Arctic treeline, as well as north along the
Mackenzie and Coppermine rivers to the Arctic Ocean.
Pre-contact beaver-population estimates vary widely,
from a conservative 60 million to an extravagant 400 million.
In the words of explorer and cartographer David
Thompson, the entire northern half of the continent was
originally “in the possession of two distinct races of Beings,
Man and the Beaver.” Thompson’s authority to make such
statements came from surveying and mapping one-sixth of
North America and talking with countless aboriginal elders
who had known of the beaver’s glory days.
Cherie Westbrook, an associate professor in the
University of Saskatchewan’s department of geography and
planning, corroborates Thompson’s anecdotal evidence and
brings an ecohydrologist’s perspective to the discussion.
According to Westbrook, 85 percent of all watercourses in
the United States — and a comparable, though unquantified,
percentage in Canada — are headwater streams and,
therefore, small enough to be dammed by beavers. This
continent-wide network of fine blue lines represents
a wealth of potential beaver habitat. “We’re talking about
beaver in nearly every headwater stream across North
America prior to European colonization,” says Westbrook. It was a bonanza that would set off North America’s first
natural resource stampede.
At first, the fur trade was merely a sideline for the cod
fishermen who sailed back and forth across the Atlantic in
the late 1400s and early 1500s. But their discovery of Castor
canadensis could not have come at a better time for the Old
World, where an insatiable demand for hats made from the beaver’s dense under-fur was fast depleting the supply of
materials. By the mid-1500s, the once common Eurasian
beaver, C. fiber, existed only in a few isolated corners of
Scandinavia, Siberia and the Far East, and the rush for
North America’s “brown gold” was on.
French, English and Dutch traders shipped tens of thousands
of beaver pelts annually in the early decades of the fur
trade. Then they pushed inland and intensified their efforts.
Throughout the 1700s, annual exports of beaver pelts rarely
dipped below 100,000. Some years, they may have topped
300,000. But the real problem wasn’t the body count. It was
the fur trade’s relentless, colony-obliterating progress across
the continent, which wiped the species right off the map
even as the cartographers were drawing it. Sheer numbers
were no match for the traders’ technology and greed.
The first concerted attempt to arrest the beaver’s precipitous
decline was led by George Simpson, governor of the
Hudson’s Bay Company. Between 1821 and 1850, he
imposed a series of trapping moratoriums and quotas on
the company’s western interior districts and prohibited
agents at those posts from buying the skins of beaver cubs
and summer-killed adults, whose fur was of little commercial
value. These conservation measures were moderately
successful but too geographically limited to make a difference.
South of the border, independent American trappers
were scooping up beaver pelts — “hairy banknotes” in the
lingo of the mountain men — as fast as they could find
them. Counter to his own conservation efforts, Simpson
responded by aggressively expanding his operations west of the Rockies, deliberately eliminating beavers from parts
of Oregon and Washington before rivals could get there.
By the early 1900s, there was scarcely a beaver to be
found south of the forty-ninth parallel and throughout
much of Canada. Records for Rupert House, the Hudson’s
Bay Company’s oldest trading post, reveal just how dire
the situation was, even in a remote area like James Bay. In
the winter of 1928-29, after months of scouring the
25,000 square kilometres around Rupert House, the community’s
desperate trappers had only four beaver pelts to
show for their efforts.
Meanwhile, hundreds of kilometres to the south,
Archibald Belaney, an English immigrant who had adopted
a First Nations persona and the alias Grey Owl, had taken
up the beaver’s cause. In 1928, after years of making his
living as a trapper in northern Ontario and Quebec,
Belaney swore off trapping and set out to save the species
he had come to see as a symbol of Canada’s vanishing
wilderness. His passionate and eloquent writings, published
under his pseudonym, soon drew international
attention to the beaver’s plight.
In 1928, the Dominion Parks Branch made a 13-minute,
black and white silent motion picture featuring Grey Owl — wearing his customary buckskin jacket and moccasins —
and his two pet beavers, Rawhide and Jelly Roll. No
professional filmmaker had ever filmed beavers in a natural
setting, and Beaver People (which can be viewed on the
National Film Board website) was a hit.
The following year, the parks commissioner offered
Grey Owl a job and a new home by a secluded lake
in Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert National Park. In his role
as a live tourist attraction, the lanky, blue-eyed “Indian”
solemnly greeted the hundreds of visitors who canoed and
hiked to his cabin each summer and introduced them to
Rawhide and Jelly Roll. The celebrity pair always came
when he called, assured of receiving apples, peanuts and
other treats. They also fulfilled their other obligation,
producing annual litters to help rebuild the park’s
decimated beaver population.