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Walk Softly – Beavers – I have more to say

by Geoffrey Carpentier

Last time, I talked about the different reactions people have toward beavers depending on the nature of their previous encounters. This week, I want to talk more about their history and biology to complete the story.

The beaver has been a foundational component of our traditional trade systems since the early explorers came to Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries when fur trappers wandered the north searching for pelts. White-tailed deer and raccoon were the primary exports, with beavers a close third. In 1787, 139,509 beaver skins were exported from Canada, compared to 68,142 martens, 26,330 otters, 16,951 minks, 8913 foxes, 17,109 bears, 102,656 deer, 140,346 raccoons, 9816 elks, 9687 wolves and 125 seals according to McGill University. The average take of beavers during this era was about 200,000 per year until the early 1900s when they became so rare we had to protect them. At that time, only about 100,000 beavers were left in all of North America - most of them in Canada. By 1950, they had recovered such that almost 3 million pelts were taken between 1950-60.

Today the estimated population is between 6-12 million. Of course, its importance is recognized partly by the fact it appears on our 5-cent coin. Ranging across Canada and much of North America, it understandably is not common in urban areas, but I recently saw them at the tip of Point Pelee NP in Essex County and in Toronto’s Tommy Thompson Park, so they can be quite opportunistic and resilient.

The beaver is a large rodent whose teeth grow throughout its lifetime. Constant gnawing is essential to its survival, or its teeth will grow right through its jaws (called malocclusion), and death is imminent. Its diet ensures it can manage tooth growth because it literally gnaws its way to the dinner table. It behaves like an aquatic mammal since it has a broad tail, which is used to warn of danger; it has webbing only on the hind feet for swimming, and it has an odd feature on the notched hind toe, which is used as a comb to maintain the pelt’s waterproofing ability which ensures it can live in this cold aquatic environment.

The den is built as the typical lodge, an iconic structure recognized by many, or it will be constructed as a bank den when the borders of the water body are too steep or deep. As we all know, the beaver builds and maintains elaborate dams to maintain the water level throughout the year, so the entryways to the lodges are always submerged and below the level where the water freezes in winter. Broken dams are quickly repaired, usually at night, with all the family members (except small young ones) helping to close the breach. Lodges are elaborate structures with up to 12 meters (40’) across and 3 meters (10’) tall. Each lodge contains compartments to care for the young, resting places and even a latrine!

Food is comprised primarily of the soft bark of trees, shrubs, and other seasonal plants. Beavers are famous for sometimes tackling very large trees, so to dispel a myth, beavers cannot predict which way a tree will fall, and many have been killed by chopping down trees which then fell on them.

Breeding starts when the beaver is about 21 months old and occurs in the winter, with the kits (young beaver) being born in April, May or June, when three to four (and up to eight) young are born. Quite large, they weigh 0.5 -1.5 pounds, are about 12-15 inches long and sport a tail of about 3.5 inches. By the time it is a year old, it will weigh in at about 20-27 pounds, at which time it may remain in the lodge when the next litter is born, but when the following litter comes, it is driven off to fend for itself.

So, what was the big draw in the first place to create such a high demand for beaver pelts? Indigenous peoples trapped them for food, clothing and trade, but the Westerners wanted hats, that’s it!

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff online on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

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