| Apr 25, 2013

Two hundred people packed the Civitan Hall in Perth for a day-long seminar devoted to the ubiquitous Canadian Beaver, the loved and loathed creature that most closely resembles humans in its tendency to make changes to its surroundings.

As creatures who alter their habitat to suit their needs and who seem to be unaware of the vast eco-systemic impacts of their own search for a comfortable home, humans should understand beavers pretty well.

The problems between humans and beavers are not those of understanding. They are really based on conflicting land uses.

The first speaker at the seminar was Dr. Cherie Westbrook, from the University of Saskatchewan. She has made a career of studying the impacts of beaver dams on water bodies in a variety of landscapes throughout North America, and has recently returned from a five-week trip to Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina where a "gift" of 25 pairs of beavers from the Government of Canada some 70 years ago has become an entrenched population of 150,000, with resulting impacts on the landscape and agriculture in Tierra Del Fuego.

What Cherie Westbrook and her team have found is that one of the effects of Beaver dams is to increase groundwater quantity in a swath of land up and downstream from the dams.

In one major study that she has done on the Colorado River, she found that 70% of the water in the river was diverted by a single dam, which resulted in a significant defence against drought in the surrounding region. Beavers are associated with the development and augmentation of riparian zones, riverside regions that foster rich habitat for a large number of plants and animals.

Westbrook said that beaver populations in North America have rebounded significantly from the lows of the early years of the 20th century, when they had been hunted to the point that their future was in some doubt. It is estimated there were between 60 and 400 million beavers in North America before beaver hats took Europe by storm. The current estimate is between 9.6 and 15 million in North America, and with the recent warming trend in Northern Canada, beaver populations are expanding northward each year.

With representatives from 12 different local townships in attendance at the seminar, the subject of beaver management was bound to come up.

In introducing Mike Richardson, the public works manager for Central Frontenac Township, seminar host Gray Merriam said, “Now it is time to get a view from the trenches. When you call your township office to say your road is washed out from floods caused by a beaver dam, these are the guys who answer your call."

Richardson’s presentation, the Beaver and the Taxpayer, covered some of the recent evolution in the way municipalities handle beaver conflicts, which are mostly manifested in flooded roads.

He also talked about the division of responsibility between provincial legislation, conservation authorities, and the rights and responsibilities of private landowners. “At one time most public works employees had shotguns in the back of their vehicles and that is how they dealt with beavers, but that is not how we do things now,” he said.

The Township of Central Frontenac used to use dynamite as part of its dam control strategy but that is also no longer the case. Currently township crews work to keep all culverts clear; they take dams out on private property on occasion; and the township is also experimenting with a number of beaver leveller or beaver baffler devices. The township also engages trappers to handle beaver populations.

“The biggest factor that makes managing beaver activities that threaten roads and public safety a problem is the fact that landowners do not manage the height of the dam to keep them from flooding back onto a road and threatening a road if it breaks,” Richardson said.

He also said the breakdown of responsibility between municipalities, landowners, and other levels of government needs to be clarified. “Senior levels of government need to provide clearer legislation that will allow municipalities to protect their infrastructure and maintain public safety with fewer restrictions and in a timely manner,” he said.

Although I missed the afternoon sessions, which included some landowners' perspectives, I did see the presentation of Michel Leclair, who has spent 35 years managing the beaver population in Gatineau Park and currently runs a beaver-based tourism operation called Eco-Oddysey near the park. Leclair was featured in a CBC Nature of Things documentary called Beaver Whisperers a few weeks ago.

He pulled out a thick binder that describes all the beaver devices that he has constructed over the years.

“I’ve tried a lot of different things, and they work, but you need to keep your eye on them. Some of them work for a few years, some for 20 years; it all depends, and the device must fit the circumstances,” he said.

Leclair said that the 350 square kilometre Gatineau Park is quite densely populated by beavers and also has 350 kilometres of trails and 200 kilometres of road. Over the years, he has developed a network of 167 monitoring points in the park, along with 97 control devices, 164 beaver dams with devices, and 26 diversion dams.

The trick to the whole enterprise, for Leclair, is to understand what beavers try to do.

“If you are trying to stop a beaver from doing what it wants to do, good luck,” he said, “but if you are only trying to move it in one direction or another and can offer a good outcome, you might have some success."

More a realist than a purist, Leclair has trapped and shot beavers when necessary, but to the extent that he can give the beavers what they need while at the same time ensuring that public uses of Gatineau Park are maintained, he is very happy to work with the beavers. Some of his best techniques involved partially constructing a dam that permits enough water to flow through a submerged outlet pipe in order to maintain levels downstream and prevent flooding, and then leaving the rest of the job to the beavers.

The beaver seminar was led by the Frontenac Stewardship Foundation in partnership with the Renfrew, Lanark, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington, and Hastings Councils. The councils are all in flux at the moment as they have lost their provincial funding from the Ministry of Natural Resources.

The seminar demonstrated some of the values that stewardship councils bring to rural Ontario. As volunteer-based entities with representation from a cross section of rural landowners, naturalists, farmers, loggers, they are able to take on issues that can be divisive. At the beaver seminar, trappers and municipal officials charged with beaver eradication rubbed shoulders and sat with nature lovers, scientists, and others and shared information and takes about their mutual interest in a healthy, productive rural landscape.

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