The Trouble With Beaver

By Robert J. Galbraith for the Montreal Gazette, May 2010

RJG10-0603-Beavers14SmallFileMontreal – A century ago, the Canadian beaver was on the verge of extinction. Once numbering in the millions, there were barely 100,000 of them left in North America, largely due to over-trapping and habitat destruction. But what a difference a few decades can make.

Their numbers are now exploding with an estimated 20 million across the continent, and well over one million living and thriving here in Quebec, the largest number ever recorded in the province.

Beaver TroubleNow the continent’s largest rodents are getting their revenge on humanity with a gnawing vengeance. Every year in Quebec, the damage caused by beavers is estimated to run into the millions of dollars and is a huge financial burden on municipalities, private landowners, roadway networks, agriculture lands, timber harvesting operations, and mining industries as they attempt to limit the damage done by beavers.

Pierre Canac-Marquis, a biologist with Natural Resources Quebec, who has been working in the field with fur-bearing animals for 35 years, says there are two main reasons behind the rise in numbers across the province. “One reason for the boom is because we are creating their preferred habitat with our forestry practices. We are cutting down conifer forests, only to have them replaced by deciduous forests, populated by aspen trees, the preferred food of beavers. We’re increasing their habitat, so in turn their populations are expanding,” he explained.

“Secondly, the anti-fur lobby has meant that the beaver pelt is less in demand and the price for a pelt is at an all-time low. Now the pelt is sold at around $19 a skin, compared to $500 a pelt in the mid-forties,” stated the biologist. “There is no market for the skins and they are now not really worth the effort to harvest or trap.”

Both these reasons create a perfect situation for a beaver population increase. “We’ve really created a little paradise for them, a beaver Nirvana, and their numbers will continue to increase for sure. With this comes more flooding and damage.”

He explained that last year there were around 35,000 beaver trapped for their pelts in Quebec, compared to 70,000 yearly in the 1990’s. “Most trappers are now making money by trapping problem beavers that are destroying property, rather than for their pelts,” said Marquis.

Rail companies trap huge numbers each year because of the damage they do to rail lines and structures, and it costs them hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars to keep the lines safe. Not maintaining the lines can turn deadly, as it did in 1992 when a beaver dam burst in rural Ontario, washing out a section of rail line and causing a freight train to derail, resulting in the death of two crew members. Marquis commented that, “such incidents have the potential to occur again as the animals spread and flood new areas.”

He mentioned an instance that occurred five years ago on the Trans Canada Highway in Quebec, when a burst beaver dam flooded out a culvert. This one situation led to a million dollars worth of repair work to the culvert and highway.

Beavers11Even on some parts of the Island of Montreal, the former hub of the North American fur trade, the beaver has thumbed its nose at its former pursuers and taken up residence, where it continues to change the landscape under the shadow of the city’s inhabitants.

One beaver-human conflict close to home is occurring in Verdun, on Nun’s Island.

In 2008, the Montreal borough hired a wildlife management group to help rid the island of a pair of pesky beavers that had made their home on the island. The beavers were cutting down a large number of trees along the Verdun and Nun’s Island shoreline.

Verdun Borough spokesperson, Francine Morin says that there is not a lot they can do to control them. “There’s nothing we can do. We can’t trap them because a couple of years ago we tried this strategy with a professional trapper to control their numbers and a dog got caught in one of the traps and died,” she explained.

Because of this, a number of citizens were concerned that a child might get caught in one. “We don’t use traps now. Instead we try to dissuade the beavers by wrapping wire fencing around the trunks of their favourite food trees that line our shoreline. There is nothing we can do to eradicate them but we are trying to dissuade them. This is working, but it’s just a deterrent.”

James Jackson, environmental inspector for the town of Morin Heights, explained that beaver problems are definitely a big issue in the Laurentians where many Montrealers have waterfront cottages.

“This town spends about $10,000 a year to keep the land and roads from being overwhelmed and flooded out by beaver. If a road is washed out, it can cost thousands to repair. These costs are shouldered by the taxpayers. It’s an ongoing war in beaver country,” he confessed.

Continuing, he explained that, “private property owners foot the bill when beavers affect their properties by cutting down trees and shrubs or flooding their property and their septic systems. It costs them around $50 per animal to have a trapper remove problem beavers.”

The beavers can only be trapped from October to March but in emergency situations, such as when a dam threatens to break and affect the properties of those living downstream or town infrastructure, the municipality can get permission from natural resources officials to remove the problem animals outside of the trapping season.

RJG10-0603-Beavers15The town of Hudson has been controlling beaver numbers for over ten years and it cost them $4000 this year to remove two beaver families that threatened private and municipal property. It’s an annual problem.

Mr. Robert Werbiski, a civilian employee and environmental officer at Canadian Forces Base St-Jean, says the Canadian Armed Forces are not immune to problems arising from beavers on Forces training areas, such as the Farnham base. It costs the base $10,000 a year to deal with the beaver problem.

To counteract the expansion of beavers and the resulting damage, the Forces have been implementing beaver birth control and euthanasia since 2006. “For the last four years we’ve had a biologist and veterinarian performing vasectomies and hysterectomies on the adults to curb their reproduction. The Farnham program will continue until next year and appears to be working as the numbers have dropped from 50 or more before 2006 to the present 20 beavers.”

Wildlife biologist, Marc-André Fortin, is mandated to implement the programs at Farnham and Ile Bizard. He explained that, “the sterilized pair of beavers (which mate for life), keep other territory-seeking beavers off their terrain and maintain the water levels at a height necessary for the pair to survive.” Higher water levels and intensified tree cutting are necessary if they are producing offspring.

Fortin says the beaver are live-trapped and brought to the Biodome, where a veterinarian performs the one to one-and-a-half hour operation. “The following day, they are brought back to their territory and released. They don’t need much recovery time.” The program starts in August, after the lactation period ends. Fortin has been involved in 30-40 sterilizations in the Montreal region, including Farnham.

This same program is being carried out on Ile Bizard, in the Bois de Liesse, and Saraguay Woods. It is being considered as an option by Laval. New Brunswick is also showing interest in the program. But the use of birth control is very expensive and thus limited in use.

“The beaver is very important for the biodiversity of the wetlands and considered a cornerstone of the ecosystem, but we must strike an acceptable balance and there is no easy solution,” stated Fortin.

Beavers do not pose a physical threat to humans. They are docile, nocturnal creatures, rarely seen in daylight hours. But if they are cornered or handled improperly, they can strike out and give a nasty bite.

RJG10-0603-Beavers18Fortin has been bitten by beavers 6 times, when removing them from traps and cages. “One time I needed 4 stitches on my left leg. This was the worst bite I ever received. Usually they just tear off a bit of skin, but I wouldn’t panic and shuffle my children into the house or cottage if a beaver swims past or if they have a lodge nearby. A beaver will most likely take off in the opposite direction when a human approaches.”

The beaver, with its webbed feet, oversized teeth and large flat tail is as Canadian as the Bluenose schooner and maple syrup. Besides being recognized as an emblem of Canada, it graces our nickel and has its profile on countless businesses, clubs and industries. It also sits at the top of the emblem of the City of Montreal and in fact, Hochelaga, the site of present-day Montreal, translates into ‘beaver meadows’ in the local First People’s language.

We may have had our run-ins with the beaver and will continue to, but Canadians might consider that our present nation might not look the same as it does today if not for this industrious little mammal, which literally has given us the fur off its back to help build this flourishing nation.