Everyone is familiar with beavers. Some know them as hardworking dam builders, while others see them as nuisances that clog culverts and cut down valuable trees. Regardless of how one feels about this large rodent, they should be given the distinction of being one of our most valuable wildlife species.
Mountain men explored the West in part in pursuit of valuable beaver pelts. With the advent of the felt hat, fashionable shaved beaver hats passed the scene. Beaver soon lost its value as a driving force in the North American fur market. The market for beaver skins has waxed and waned since then, but the animal itself has retained its importance in folklore and in our modern lives.
“Busy as a beaver” is still an instructive phrase. The sight of a huge beaver dam creates curiosity and admiration. Beaver dams can cause devastating flooding in urban areas. However, they provide valuable habitat for many birds and other mammals in the forest.
Beaver build ponds for several reasons. The primary purpose of ponds in Alaska is to provide a safe, stable place to live during the winter. A pond must be created deep enough to provide enough water for a house to have entrances that will not freeze. Also, since the beaver must store large food stores to survive the winter, this food store must remain in water, not frozen in ice. Fall food stalls will look like a brush pile in the water anchored next to a conical beaver nest. Most of the bait pile will be underwater, out of sight.
In states with relatively short winters, storing food for beavers is not as difficult as it is for their counterparts in Alaska. In many parts of the state, ponds will be covered with ice from late September to mid-May. Nine months of life under the ice requires an enormous amount of food. The beaver lays down its fat reserves during the summer months to help prepare for the lean times to come.
The type of feed generally depends on the location. Cottonwood, poplar, and willow are preferred foods. Denali Highway lodges are dominated by willow. There will also be an occasional poplar, if any. A few ponds will have some dwarf maple in their feed pile. One pond I trapped was based entirely on lily pad stems; their house was built entirely of lilies and mud.
In many areas, particularly Alaska, trappers manage to survive the winter by taking one or two adult animals from the lodge, thus providing more available food for the remaining animals. Otherwise, the entire group may starve during the harsh winter months.
Location and habitat determine the size of a wintering beaver family. Denali country usually has half a dozen members, although there may be a dozen or more residents in milder climates. A typical lodge will have several breeding adults and two spring sets of young from the previous year. Predation may take one or two beavers, but a wintering family usually consists of at least four individuals.
Some houses are single houses. These are adult men who have lost their spouses or have not yet mated. Three to five beavers can winter in these ponds. The results are similar regardless of how a pond is populated. Beaver Pond is an oasis of activity in the wilderness.
Ponds can otherwise be percolating through the willows. Ponds provide abundant insect life. Water bugs, striders and of course mosquitoes provide excellent food sources for fish and birds. Every angler knows that beaver ponds are home to the largest grayling. Duck hunters look for teal, coot and pintail in the shallows, feeding on small invertebrates and vegetation. Otter and mink also come to hunt. Moose feed on weeds and ever-renewing willow growth.
A beaver pond may be the only safe haven in areas hit hard by wildfires. An aerial view may reveal that the only greenery for miles is a well-maintained stream choked by beaver dams.
Beaver can also be an important food source. Past generations of local people found them easy to catch. A large male can weigh 60 kilos or more. Thirty pounds of rich meat is an extremely valuable addition to a high-calorie, winter diet.
Beaver is a dark meat with a distinct flavor not unlike bison or elk. Beaver bought in the winter months is better with the fat removed – at least for the western palate.
Next time you see a beaver clogging a roadside culvert or cutting down your favorite poplar at your weekend cabin, stop and think before you curse it for its seemingly destructive industry. An animal as busy as a beaver is an overflow of one of our most important resources hidden deep in the forest.