By: Clint Calhoun
Several years ago, I was standing in the parking lot up at Chimney Rock State Park (it was privately owned at the time) watching a couple of groundhogs that had climbed up into the kudzu covered canopy that was draped over the small trees below the parking lot. They were munching away on the soft tender kudzu leaves in what could be described as an almost tranquil scene. The tranquility was suddenly broken by a voice that said, “Look George, it’s a beaver!” Only she pronounced it “beav-ah.” I knew right away that this couple was definitely not from here (the New Jersey accent was my first clue) and that they must be suburbanites who were not familiar with either groundhogs or beavers. Poor souls! Now don’t get me wrong here…I’m not making fun of northerners or suburbanites, but if you spend enough time outdoors, outside of the subdivision, you very quickly learn what some of these animals are and what their habits are.
Recently, my eldest son Cayden and I saw a fairly large beaver right outside of the Lake Operations Office. I don’t know if it was male or female, but we managed to get quite close to it, observed it feeding on honeysuckle (eat all you want buddy!) and grooming itself. It never appeared to be the least bit frightened and tolerated me getting close enough to get several pictures. My son was elated and said that was the closest he had ever been to a wild animal. Those are the moments you live for. Grizzly Adams doesn’t have anything on us, by George!
Beavers are fascinating creatures. They are known for “staying busy.” We see their dams in streams and admire their construction prowess and then curse them when they cut down our trees and expensive shrubs. Loved by some, hated by others, beavers have a rich history in this country that almost led to their demise.
Hunted and trapped for their valuable water-repellant fur and castor oil, beavers almost disappeared from North Carolina’s waterways. Demand and interest on the part of North Carolina trappers caused the state to reintroduce beavers, starting in the late 1930’s. North Carolina brought in 29 beavers from Pennsylvania and introduced them into the Sandhills region of the state. The numbers began to steadily increase. The program was so successful that the state again introduced beavers in the 50’s. They released 54 beavers in 9 counties spread across the state. Since that time, beavers have spread successfully across North Carolina and inhabit almost every waterway in the state. Oddly enough, the beavers were introduced to supply the fur market, but the number of people who trap has decreased. As our state has become more suburban and the land more fragmented, landowners have become less receptive to beaver trapping, leading to a population explosion that is causing problems for property owners state-wide.
Beavers are the largest, native North American mammal, with lengths up to three feet (Not including the tail) and weighing as much as 90 pounds. Their large, flat tails are used as a rudder when swimming, store fat, are used to communicate threats (water slapping), and for support. They use their long incisor teeth to eat plant material and cut down trees for their dams and lodges. Beavers are strictly vegetarians. They do not eat fish, contrary to popular belief.
Beavers are keystone species in that they play a crucial role in habitat creation. Their ponds provide habitat for many other species. Trees that die from the flooding effects of a beaver dam will often become den trees for numerous species. Beaver dams, which are made of larger trees, limbs, and mud, will often modify stream morphology by creating meanders in otherwise straight stream channels, reducing flow velocities and bank erosion. Because they feed primarily on smaller trees and shrubs, it increases the number of actual stems that will grow out of a stump, making streambank vegetation denser, providing a better vegetated buffer for the stream.
Unfortunately, the flooding that results from beaver dams also kills economically important timber stands. Another problem that occurs is when dams breach in large flood events. The dam failures will release backed up sediments that can impact larger water bodies such as Lake Lure, increasing turbidity and sedimentation at the mouths of streams. They absolutely will destroy your non-native shrubbery which often consists of plants that have smaller diameters and soft wood which is more ideal for food rather than as construction material.
People call me all the time about beavers, usually wanting to know how to get rid of them. The best management tool is trapping them during the beaver trapping season. Some may think that trapping is cruel and inhumane, but the people that say that really don’t know what they are talking about. Trapping methods are regulated by the state to cause the least amount of pain and suffering to the animal. It’s sort of ironic when you consider that it was trapping that got us to this point to begin with. If you want to try to live with them, be prepared to protect your plants with fencing and other protective measures. Native plants are encouraged and actually better suited to being nibbled on by beavers, especially shrubs.
I guess my point in all this is to say that we often despise the things we don’t understand and we exploit the things that we think we understand, never realizing that the very things we hate may benefit the greater good and the things we exploit may be the very thing that creates problems for us later on. When we fail to understand our role in nature as a steward of our planet, then we fail as a species.
Clint Calhoun is a naturalist and biologist and has worked in Hickory Nut Gorge for over 20 years. He is currently the Environmental Management Officer for the Town of Lake Lure. Check out Clint’s blog at http://clintcalhounadventures.blogspot.com.