Among my favorite native mammals is the North American beaver.
Before European settlement of North America, the continent’s beaver population was estimated to number between 60 and 400 million individuals. By the early 1900s the populations in the continental United States and southern Canada were nearly eradicated due to trapping and trading of the animals for their fur. Beaver pelts were commonly used as currency during early exploration and colonization of the New World.
As a student at Alabama Polytechnic Institute, now Auburn University, during the early 1950s, I knew of but one beaver colony in Lee and surrounding counties. It was one of my favorite places to explore. We called the impoundment the colony had created “Dowdell’s beaver swamp.” Critters of all kinds inhabited the swamp, including Wood Ducks, bright yellow Prothonotary Warblers, several kinds of herons and a diverse assemblage of reptiles and amphibians.
Since then the population of beavers in the area has rebounded, and today there must be upwards of a hundred beaver colonies. One inhabits a stretch of Sturkie Creek, which is the western boundary of some property we own in eastern Lee County. It was there that our dog, a Doberman, entered a hole in a beaver bank den and retrieved, unharmed, a baby beaver. I saw another baby floating down the creek and rescued it. Janie and I and Dr. Keith and Ann Causey raised both beavers to adulthood. Young beavers, when properly reared and cared for, make adorable pets.
But the fact that beavers provide valuable wildlife habitats and that beavers can be lovable pets are not the only reasons why I appreciate them. Their ponds are sediment traps. The water that flows from them is much cleaner than the water entering them, and the downstream fauna is likely to be more diverse. The water retention provided contributes to aquifer recharge and reduces the severity of droughts.
Loss of wetlands due to drainage for agriculture and development is partially mitigated by the presence of beaver ponds. The ponds are considered by ecologists to be one of the most effective and economical ways to minimize some potential impacts of climate change on the land’s hydrology. Elevated water tables improve the vigor of the ground cover and shift vegetation types from drought-tolerant to more water-dependent species.
Researchers estimate that beaver ponds covered 51.5 million acres in 1900 compared with 511,000 acres in 1990, and this reduction has resulted in a huge loss in flood control and system stability during droughty years and those with excessive precipitation. Additional information on the value provided by beavers is contained in an article, “Beaver Wetlands,” written by S. T. Brown and S. Fouty, available on the Internet.
If allowed to remain intact, a recently constructed beaver dam and the impoundment created can be observed from a wooden bike path bridge crossing a small stream east of the intersection of Webster Road and Wire Road near Auburn. Several years ago beavers had dammed the same stream at the same location, but the dam was demolished. The pond created by that dam was so close to the road that authorities feared the beavers might tunnel beneath the road. I was told that was the reason the dam was demolished. The “new dam” and the pond created are not near the road. Thus it is unlikely the beavers will try to tunnel under it.
The beavers, I suspect, will construct a lodge in the pond for a refuge.
The aforementioned wooden bridge is ideal for viewing a beaver dam, the pond and some of the pond’s inhabitants up close. With a spotlight it might be possible to observe the beavers’ nocturnal goings-on from the bridge.
I am aware that beavers can at some places cause enough damage to warrant their removal. But all things considered, the benefits we derive from the activities of beavers vastly outweigh any damage they cause.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank