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Beavers as Barometers

Posted April 15, 2009 12:01 AM by SavvyExacta

Animals returning to waterways may mean cleaner water for people, too. After being trapped to near extinction for their pelts from the 1700s to early 1900s, the beaver is finally beginning to make a comeback in Detroit, Michigan. Why now? Wildlife officials say cleaner waterways may play a part. Similarly, beavers are being reintroduced into Scotland. Before examining why, first let's learn more about what and why beavers build.

Semi-Aquatic Rodents

While "semi-aquatic rodents" is a mouthful of a way to explain a beaver, it is accurate when you think about it. The beaver is the world's second-largest rodent, and is divided into two species – one is native to North America; the other is native to Eurasia.

Well known for using their teeth to down trees for the construction of protective dams and housing lodges, beavers also build canals to float heavy building materials. Their wide tail is a tell-tale beaver characteristic, which is used for slapping the water when danger is near. Beavers come in a variety of colors including pale brown, reddish brown, brown, and black. About 66% of European beavers are pale brown compared to 50% of American.

Contrary to popular belief, beavers do not hibernate during the winter. The lodges that they live in are insulated and snow pile-up can help the water from freezing in the immediate surrounding area.

American Recovery

A motion-sensing camera recently discovered a beaver living in the Detroit River. This is significant because according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, beavers have not been seen in the river for 75 to 100 years. Wildlife experts guess the beaver may have swum from the Canadian side of Lake St. Clair.

Other wildlife that has returned to the area includes fish like sturgeon and walleye, and birds like falcons and eagles. Cleaner waterways are cited for the species' returns.

Similarly, cleanups of the Bronx River in N.Y. have lead to a return to a pair of beavers there. Beavers were either hunted to near-extinction (a beaver-pelt hat adorns the N.Y.-state seal) or evicted by farmers about 200 years ago. The N.Y. Times has a good video about the story, complete with thermal images of the beavers inside their lodge.

Scottish Recovery

Beavers are not only returning to their homes in the U.S. A project in Scotland will reintroduce four beaver families into the wild – more than 400 years after they were hunted to extinction. Funded by the European Union (EU), the first step of the project was for nature experts from Scotland to study beavers in Norway.

The return of the beavers does not come without some controversy. A spokesman from the Confederation of Forestry Industries opposed the plan because of beavers' disruptive tendencies in woodland settings. Local landowners argued that the beavers would threaten farms, fisheries, and woodlands.

Proponents to the plan argue that beavers create cleaner waterways with less pollution. According to John Gurnell, a wildlife biologist at Queen Mary College, beavers can alleviate the effects of flooding and raise water levels during droughts in addition to improving water qualities. His report added that beaver ponds tend to be richer in wildlife than normal rivers.

Resources:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29222122/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beaver

http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2009/02/16/beaver.html

http://video.nytimes.com/video/2007/02/26/science/1194817095374/the-beaver-s-return.html

http://www.physorg.com/news146486441.html

http://heritage.scotsman.com/beavers/Beavers-return-to-Scotland-comes.3293695.jp

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1162750/Return-beaver-cut-water-bills-scientists-say.html

http://www.kdwp.state.ks.us/news/layout/set/print/Hunting/Furharvesting/Furbearer-Gallery/Beaver-Castor-canadensis

http://www.wildlife.state.nh.us/Wildlife/Wildlife_profiles/profile_beaver.htm

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#1

Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/15/2009 6:36 AM

They are hardly likely to screw up the evironment any more than we do. Their water management skills are probably vastly superior to ours.
We build on flood plains and then whinge about the flooding, Duh.
They've got it sussed, and they're cute...not as cute as cats mind you
Del

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#2
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Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/15/2009 10:21 AM

100% agree with you there. It is annoying how people ignore nature and how important it is that species don't become extinct. It is a combination of greed (wanting pelts) and the 'ignorance is bliss' issue.

What is the real issue here? These people don't want to be slightly inconvenienced by a beaver. People seem so uneducated about the ecosystem that they can't see all of the positive things that beavers (or any species) can have on the environment. I remember seeing a beaver (or what I thought to be a beaver) near a creek by my house. They are magnificent creatures and deserve to thrive. For some reason humans think they should be the jury and the judge, decide which species live and which ones they should slaughter. Obviously, this hasn't been such a good thing for the environment.

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#3

Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/15/2009 1:23 PM

My front yard.

We have a family of beavers that live on this small pond. The pond is fed from the left by a brook, and empties to the right into a larger pond. I like watching that actions of these beavers. However, they can really make a mess. Around my pond, there are about 25 trees that they have fell into the water.

Some places north of me have had their land flooded by beaver dams. They are protected here, so too bad.

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#4
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Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/15/2009 1:43 PM

Tell the beavers 'Del says hi'

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#5
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Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/15/2009 11:46 PM

So Primus song "Wynona's big brown beaver" can have a normal meaning again?

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#6
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Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/15/2009 11:51 PM

I agree too many beavers can lead to trouble. In Alberta, Canada they tend to block drainage culverts with their dams flooding fields and roads. The wildlife department will set traps for them if they get into places where they don't belong. They are rodents and can make a mess of a wooded area in a short time.

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#7

Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/16/2009 3:47 AM

Cool post, SavvyExacta.

One of the things that puzzles me about the UK situation, is the 'against' argument from the fishing lobby. Salmon migrate up rivers, and have presumably done so for a long time. Beavers were once indigenous. I can't see how the two thing happened at the same time at the same location

It sounds like the Tweed Commission are jumping the gun ; Argyll, where the planned release is taking place, is on the other side of Scotland. Further (and I'm guessing), Salmon do whatever they do at sea out in the Atlantic (off Argyll) rather then the North Sea (the Tweed)*. OK, that last bit is a very big guess, but I don't know the historical habitat of each creature. It must have worked out somehow. Salmon fishing is big money, probably a lot more than beaver-tourism. Money shouldn't be the end argument, but it will certainly be a big part of it . The re-introduction of raptors in Scotland was met with a lot of mysterious bird deaths, more than likely commercially motivated. Dammit, there isn't a more depressed emoticon thingy !

Beavers will probably stay where the environment suits them in Scotland, but there seem to be a general assumption that re-introduced species will spread all over the place. That's not true, especially with something like beaver where the historical habitat has changed so much, but a presumption of threat may be made. It'd be a hell of a shame going to see beavers, and finding some demented angler/fish warden had shot/poisoned them.

*Salmon go off to Greenland and Norway. They're fished on both side of Scotland, though Argyll iin general isn't noted for Salmon fishing so much, it's too hilly. The planned release site is pretty remote by UK standards. "There are no salmon in the Knapdale trial area".

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#8
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Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/16/2009 3:50 AM

not as cute as cats mind you

Hmmm....how did you slink onto a rodent thread ? We may have to alter your teeth

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#9
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Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/16/2009 4:34 AM

I shall ignaw your jibes

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#10
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Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/16/2009 5:01 AM

Tee hee hee......pointy gnashers are just as good as scrapey ones, they all have their uses. I'm sure Quo said something about beavers - "down, down, beaver 'em down...". Ya got to admit, that's a pretty funny for this time of day !

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#11

Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/16/2009 5:42 AM

So how was it, again, that a beaver can be used as a barometer?

I mean...the woodland kind, not the cat type beaver.

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#12
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Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/16/2009 7:11 AM

"Barometer" was so I could make the words go together. :)

But really, scientists think the return of beavers to places in the United States signals that the water is cleaner. Nobody relocated those beavers there.

So, they could be a measure of water quality. "Beavers as a Measure of Water Quality" isn't as catchy a title, so I went for the inaccurate.

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#13
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Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/16/2009 7:14 AM

How cool to be able to watch this! I miss living in the middle of nature and can't wait to move out of the small city I live in and back into the "wilderness".

Do the beavers clean up most of the trees they fell, or do you ever have to clean up any "messes" they leave behind?

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#14
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Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/16/2009 7:20 AM

Word spreads fast !

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#15
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Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/16/2009 7:37 AM

Basically, the beavers drop the trees into the water and eat the more tender parts. That amounts to about 2% of the tree. Unless they remove sections to use as building materials for their lodge, it just stays there. For the most part, I only remove the stuff right in front of the house, unless I want some for firewood. This is done in the winter, when we'll go out on the ice and cut it up with a chain saw.

But the beaver damage is the least of our problems this year. We had a killer ice-storm in December, and it devastated many trees around the pond. The willow tree in the photo received substantial damage. The small road in the photo was literally covered with tons of broken branches. All of this has been cleaned up, but we've not tackled the stuff in the water. That will have to wait until next winter.

The beavers are very active now. It's interesting to walk to the waters edge, and when they spot you, they slap their tails on the water to alert the others, then dive. Basically though, they're not very afraid of me, and soon return to their business.

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#16
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Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/16/2009 7:56 AM

Spring fed pond beside local highway. Pond due to beavers which have made it home for 50 years there. Once in a while the State Highway crews have to go and tear down the dam as the water is in the highway. Last time they took it all the way down and drained the pond. Opening up the area so the beavers would have a harder time of it.

Then all heck broke loose the calls to the local state representative rang off the hooks. The locals that had taken their kids for years to see that little bit of wildlife in a natural environment were at arms. There is now a concrete dam there and the state workers are only to clear the top of it.

Though a beaver's dam can be a problem at times. The dam in the right setting can be a benefit to all.

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#17

Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/16/2009 11:47 AM

One addition to the original post. There are three species called beavers not two. The american north west has a species of rodent called the mountain beaver that lives only at higher elevations. It does not have a flattened tail and is smaller.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_Beaver

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#18
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Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/16/2009 11:59 AM

Interesting animal. I did a little reading and several sources say that it's not actually a true beaver, though. It's part of a different family and genus.

http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/living/mtn_beavers.htm

http://www.enature.com/flashcard/show_flash_card.asp?recordNumber=MA0073

http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Aplodontia_rufa.html

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#19
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Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/16/2009 12:28 PM

Most beaver dams are only a meter or two high downstream. A strong salmon can jump this if enough water dept is available. The weak ones will be stopped and might not reproduces unless the welfare state intervene and give them a free ride or kill (deport) the beavers that were helping natural selection.

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#20
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Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/17/2009 12:27 AM

Or it could mean the beavers are fleeing newly dirtied water elsewhere...? It's been observed in these parts that more and more beavers are sited along lowland valley streams...perhaps moving seaward as development higher up on the Sierra Nevada and foothills has expanded.

Of course, such explanations, to the degree true, make it much harder for government and academic researchers to take their rightful share credit....

UG

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#21
In reply to #12

Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/17/2009 12:30 AM

...or a measure of air quality, good and bad.

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#22
In reply to #19

Re: Beavers as Barometers

04/17/2009 2:03 AM

Here's a bit more topical (though probably biased) info on beaver/fish.

I only just defused and exited a political digression, so I'm reluctant to enter another so soon. You could extend your dam analogy to levee (as in broken + conspiracy theory) and arch-gravity (as in Hoover + WPA).

Have fun, but be mindful of this admin quote, extracted from another (closed) thread;

"Sorry, we're not going to have a politics section. It's outside the mission of this site. Additionally, people cannot discuss these issues rationally - we know this from experience. We have booted more folks from this site for losing their composure during political discussions than all other reasons combined.

There are plenty of places on the web where one can discuss politics for politics sake (same with religion) but few where folks can have (mostly) civil discussions about engineering, science and technology."

I wasn't in on that one. A bit of politics is fine if it crops up as an incidental, it's hard to totally avoid it. Using analogy to wander off on welfare-state politics is a bit too far. Thought I'd best let you know, since the busy beavers of Troy can get irritated by such stuff, eh.

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