Most are mean, some are ugly: The engineer
The Beaver, often not much thought is given to this charismatic, water loving animal, deserving a special place amongst North American animals, engineer of the forest and designer of landscapes. The North American Beaver: fat, slow, understandably ugly and sometimes quite grumpy is found throughout most of North America, preferring areas with standing water, sloughs, and lakes. Creating landscapes is a trait we share with this fellow animal, similarities abound, we both think of ourselves with little thought of fellow creatures, with so many similarities its curious to think how we almost drove this animal to extinction.
The wetland ecosystems that are spread across the continent are amongst the most productive, high diversity and species abundance is often a characteristic of a wetland. if one spends time in this environment, even just a few moments you are treated to a community that many do not know exists, flocks of waterfowl scour the edges looking for the freshest dinner, sparrows and blackbirds provide one of the many tunes to hum, not to be outdone the Canadian geese feel they need to contribute to the evening quire. At the center of this community is the always busy North American Beaver, if your are unsure if he is present or not, then simply scan the the banks and open water for the mound of mud and sticks that compose the the cozy home of this water loving rodent. Another tell tale sign is the distinctive chew marks on the aspen, willow, and poplar, for this is the one vocation of the beaver: lumber jack. Often the precarious condition that beavers will leave a half cut tree is something that yields a sense of unease, the slightest wind or touch of a hand may complete his work. Why does a beaver harvest these trees? three main reasons that I have both observed and concluded. one: Food is an important component in any animals life, the fresh growth and green leaves that aspen and poplar posses are of the sweetest flavor, only found at the very top. Once fallen these trees will be stored and fresh growth saved for later when cold temperatures of winter freeze the land surrounding the wetland. Two: every animal that plans to stay in one area needs a place where they feel safe, the beaver lodge is this sanctuary for a practicing beaver, branches from fallen trees and passing drift wood are collected and arranged in a way that provides a warm secure resting place, mud is used as cement, binding branches together and providing a water tight fit. Three: A beaver needs room to swim, deep water is a favorite, in order to accomplish this dams must be built, where the sound of flowing is present the beaver builds. Piling mud and sticks slows the flow of water, creating deep pools and channels that the beavers swim from place to place, his kingdom is now present, and it not only provides a castle for the beaver put provides critical habitat for all that reside in the wetland.
As we learned above in the process of building his fortress and surrounding kingdom the beaver unintentionally builds and provides habitat for other species, the engineer of the northern woods is a true blessing to those around. When we visualize wetlands there is seldom visions that leave out waterfowl, as dams are built and channels deepened habitat emerges allowing many species of waterfowl to find refuge. Dabbling ducks find the buffet that is a wetland hard to resist, they may find a well structured wetland and spend the summer there breeding, raising, and caring for there young. the beaver has created a nursery that finds many residences, filling each niche and forming a community that never seems to sleep, The Sorra seems to be the loudest of the bunch, I’m not sure why there is so much to say but life must be interesting to be so loud. One thing I recently observed was the vast amount of beaver lodges that will be used by a mating par of Canadian Geese, These Geese claim the best spot in the wetland, few predators can reach them, geese will stay still, shaping there neck into a position that aims to blend into the beaver lodge, presumably attempting to hid them selves from avian predators. When you stroll along the edges of this environment, you truly see the biodiversity and abundance, the staggering amount of insect life is the foundation of this biotic community, forming the base of the food system for any residences, Muskrats find home among the beavers, trying to show there skill in the building realm as they construct there mounds made of mud and organic material. With such abundance one can spend all day counting and observing new species, it resembles a typical city, waking early the pond kicks off, residences leave there home in search of more food or mates, as the day warms mid afternoon naps seem inevitable, as evening rounds the corner those who where away find there way back, bringing any new residences they found during there journey, the volume of the wetland picks up as all residences discuss there day. The common sounds to any observer of these communities is that of the red-winged Blackbird, his piecing call informs the wetland of your presence, often one of the most pleasant sounds during time spent in this world.
A valuable member to the natural ecosystem, the beaver also found high praise amounts the aristocrats in the 1600’s. The fur trade made this animal famous, prized for its quality. The beaver was targeted heavily in the fur trade, often returning trappers would possess canoes full of furs, when we think of the number of trappers during this time its hard to believe the beaver still remains today. The predictability of the beaver makes it a species that his highly susceptible to trapping efforts. Alexander Henry sums up his method and approach in a journal entry " To kill beaver, we used to go several miles up the rivers, before the approach of night, and after the dusk came on, suffer the canoe to drift gently down the current, without noise. The beaver, in this part of the evening, come abroad to procure food, or materials for repairing their habitations; and as they are not alarmed by the canoe, they often pass it within gun-shot. [...] The most common way of taking the beaver is that of breaking up its house, which is done with trenching-tools, during the winter, when the ice is strong enough to allow of approaching them; and when, also, the fur is in its most valuable state. Breaking up the house, however, is only a preparatory step. During the operation, the family make their escape to one or more of their washes. These are to be discovered, by striking the ice along the bank, and where the holes are, a hollow sound is returned. [...] I was taught occasionally to distinguish a full wash from an empty one, by the motion of the water above its entrance, occasioned by the breathing of the animals concealed in it. From the washes, they must be taken out with the hands; and in doing this, the hunter sometimes receives severe wounds from their teeth” although not a pleasant image for most people, it is a critical and influential part of Canadian history, both for the development of Canada and a lesson in wildlife conservation and proper management. To think of the unregulated harvest of beavers across Canada its hard to understand why such efforts where implemented, but its rather simple, people wanted to look good and the beaver provided the path to high fashion. However, as we know in today's fashion trends nothing lasts forever, beaver pelts where no different, the large scale production of silk was the demise of the beaver trade, although bad for the fur trading companies, it had the opposite effect on beavers, without intensive trapping efforts, beavers where allowed time and space to repopulate. Today the beaver is a common site amongst most wild communities, restoring the land around him, providing habitat for the many. The beaver tells a tale of our past, a cautionary tale and one that we will not soon be forgotten, we seldom realize how much we owe to the beaver, for without him our country would not be what it is. However, when we look at this animal we must gaze with a passionate eye, a respect must be owed on our part, after taking so much one must be humbled by the presence of this engineer.
Do we need the beaver? engineer of the forest, keystone species, and fundamental component within the ecosystem. When beavers are absent so are the species dependent on it. Thinking critically and in this context of ecological functions can lead us to understand individual roles and the niches they fulfill in the biotic community. Species such as the beaver play an integral part, providing and delivering fundamental and critical habitat for numerous waterfowl and mammals, not to mention the vast amount of amphibians that really on these ecosystems for survival and reproduction. The role that wetlands play is of the highest order, not only are they habitat for large amounts of animals but they are the filters of the landscape, cleansing water, often neglected during human process. The clearing of wetlands in agricultural settings has always been a problem, removal of this habitat further affects water tables and habitat availability. Ranchers and farmers may be one of the biggest puzzle pieces in habitat management, these land owners hold vast amounts of critical habitat and it is critical that they understand this. Most of Canada's southern land mass is predominantly held in private hands, this is by no means bad, but poses a problem when all land owners especially those with large amounts of land do not follow or promote agriculture practices that sustain and create healthy habitat. Wetlands Are described as the kidneys of the land, filtering and cleaning, allowing these environments and in return the beaver the ability to roam wild and construct his kingdom, encourages diversity in the biotic community, provide both abundance and species richness. We seldom realize just how critical wetlands and the habitat that beavers construct are, If we watch with a careful and attentive eye we may begin to appreciate what this community and species has to offer. To those who own land, my plea is to focus on and take the time to understand the dynamic roles that each species plays. By working within ecological practices livestock can form a symbiotic relationship with native wildlife and native habitat, The greatest career may be held by those working with the land, for they are the ones that can dictate the quality of our land, diversity, and species abundance. If we can work collaboratively with fellow wildlife species and understand there requirements we can approach agriculture and other land use practices in a way that benefits all members of the community.
Know that we now what the beaver is capable of, we have to ask, is it worth our efforts to maintain the habitat and promote the engineering practices of the beaver? In the agricultural context we may look at the pests that can be tamed by promoting and maintaining wetland habitat. A single bird throughout the spring and summer will on average consume 1000-2000 insects a day depending on weather conditions, vast amounts of these insects will include agricultural pests, extrapolate this to the entire bird population of a wetland and you have extraordinary amounts of pest predation, significantly reducing populations of described harmful insects. We then look at the dollar value, Does keeping an acre of wetland increase profitability or does ploughing it, planting crop, or developing pasture yield a better result? This question is one in which I have no direct answer for, Instead lets look at what an acre sized wetland will produce and contribute to a agriculture operation. As stated above, insect predation can play a significant role, another area to look is in hydrology. By increasing the water within the farm landscape we can provide crops and forage the opportunity to access higher amounts water in the substrate, increasing overall production, as Rosevelt said "“From time to time little men will come along to find fault with what you have done…they will go down the stream like bubbles, they will vanish; but the work you have done will remain for the ages.” applies to what I am try to say, this approach my not be in the majority but if understood, will last ages. Through utilizing native ecosystems land managers can work alongside biotic communities, struggling to acknowledge this system is a common mistake, one that has contributed to lost fertility and diversity. Can we bring back the native landscape while at the same time using its resources to feed and grow our economy? I believe the answer to this question is absolutely. The mighty beaver is one who at many times can be a difficult coworker for he has a mind prone to constant change, although he may alter what we want left the same or change what we once loved he can be viewed as a regenerative force, one who adds value to any community. Learning to appreciate this North American icon is a tool that can yield a cooperative lesson, partnerships that although struggle at times, in the end, produce a body of work that alone can not be created.
As we have seen in the past our relationship with the beaver has been one of a commodity, learning from past events has taught us that each species fulfills unique obligations within the larger community. As we continue to develop and uncover new management approaches and strategies we will only uncover more facts, significantly changing our views of certain species, allowing these new facts to dictate our management decision is an area we often lag behind. “ if the facts change so does my mind” is the way we need to think. Holding onto old-world views when we clearly have better strategies is something that must be addressed, to work in a way that fails to account for the new facts will likely leave us no better off, and in time cost more money to fix. I suggest that we use new approaches proven to be correct as our guiding principles, our own subjective views, I include myself in this are not the foundational building blocks that need to be used. If we can work together as the public, managers, scientists, and producers we can without question promote sustainability. I leave you with one final thought " The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, "What good is it?" If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” - Aldo Leopold