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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Rebounding Beavers Gnaw, Engineer Wisconsin Wetlands

   The first Wisconsin game warden killed by gunfire didn’t die protecting deer, bears, wolves, walleyes or waterfowl.

   No, Einar P. Johnson, 33, died in May 1929 after confronting two Minnesotans who were bootlegging beaver pelts near Ladysmith. Wisconsin closed its beaver season that year to protect the depleted species after pelt prices hit $45 ($792 today, when adjusted for inflation), causing widespread overharvests. At that price in that era, one prime beaver pelt was worth more than many families’ monthly incomes.

   But closing the season didn’t stop beaver poaching 95 years ago. Bootleggers like Johnson’s killers found plenty of desperate people eager to take $20 per pelt, roughly $352 today.

   Beaver pelts in recent years haven’t been so golden. Even though Wisconsin grows beautiful beaver pelts, fur-buyers the past quarter-century paid only $8 to $23 each. This year, however, pelt prices jumped to $30 and more as Stetson hats soared in popularity, thanks to the hit TV series “Yellowstone,” and because Beyonce has rocked a white Stetson since the Grammy Awards in February and for her latest album, “Cowboy Carter.”

   In case you don’t see the connection, high-quality cowboy hats are made from felt, the short, dense, wooly underlayer of beaver pelts. In fact, the term “mad hatter” arose in the 1700 and 1800s because hat makers unknowingly poisoned themselves by treating beaver furs with mercury nitrate to produce felt more efficiently. Hatters breathed the fumes endlessly while working in confined rooms, causing tremors, hallucinations, speech problems and emotional instability. The U.S. didn’t ban mercury for felt production until the early 1940s.

   Despite the ongoing boom in “LBJ hats” and other top-end Western headwear costing $700 and more, no one forecasts another poacher-driven beaver pogrom. Beavers today inhabit all of Wisconsin’s 330 watersheds, 32 basins and 72 counties, even in urban areas from Milwaukee to Kenosha. Likewise, Minnesota reports beavers in all 87 counties, and Michigan documented beavers recolonizing Detroit in 2008 after their extirpation 130 years earlier in 1877.

   True, beavers lack the star power of charismatic megafauna like grizzly bears and gray wolves, but they’re indisputably North America’s largest rodent. The Department of Natural Resources reports beavers average 3 to 4 feet long and 45 to 60 pounds in weight, but trappers report catching individuals exceeding 100 pounds.

   The world’s only larger rodent is South America’s capybara, which weighs 60 to 175 pounds and measures up to 2 feet at the shoulder.

   Whatever the beaver’s population or body size, its relationship with people is typically turbulent one day and endearing the next. As a Minnesota wildlife biologist said: “A beaver in the wrong place is a nuisance; in the right place, a conservationist.”

   Beavers even have a fan club, of sorts. The BWW, short for “The Beavers: Wetlands & Wildlife,” formed in 1985 in Dolgeville, New York. Its mission is to teach people about this “keystone species that restores and maintains wetlands,” and help them solve long-term problems with beavers.

   The BWW even created International Beaver Day in 2009 and celebrates the event every April 7. That’s the birthday of Dorothy Richards, 1894-1995, who studied beavers for 50 years at the Beaversprite Sanctuary in New York’s Adirondack Mountains.

   John Olson, the Wisconsin DNR’s furbearer biologist from 1993 to 2016, hadn’t heard of International Beaver Day, but wasn’t surprised beavers had achieved such honors. Olson said beavers are one of Wisconsin’s two “love-hate” animals he worked with during his 42 years as a wildlife biologist. The other? Wolves.

   “But more than any other animal in my career, beavers have been a point of contention, interest and opportunity,” Olson said. “They’ve been writing their signature across North America for thousands of years, long before me. When I started in 1979, we worked hard to protect them. The annual bag limit was 35 beavers per trapper, and they had to tag every carcass and register it in person.

   “Today, there’s no bag limit and they seem to be everywhere,” Olson continued. “They’re amazing. Even though they’re conservation engineers, they’re not always welcome. For every wetland they create with dams, there’s a Class 1 trout stream they block or a prized tree they cut down for food or their lodge.”

   One of Olson’s longtime co-workers, Jeff Wilson, regularly trapped, dispatched or relocated hundreds of problem beavers during his career in the Northwoods. Even when an old beaver dam burst one year, washing out a railroad embankment and causing an eight rail-car derailment, Wilson never lost respect for the culprits.

   “They’re just being beavers,” Wilson said. “If they aren’t dropping trees and blocking roads, they’re plugging culverts and flooding roads. They’re very smart and always interesting.”

   Wilson recalls trusting two beavers to behave themselves during a short drive to a new area. He had caught five beavers from a colony along Highway 51 after they blocked it by toppling a tree. Wilson, however, only had cages for three beavers, and knew they’d tear into each other if forced to share one.

   “I don’t recommend this, but to save time I put two of them on the truck’s bench seat beside me,” Wilson said. “They started fighting as soon as I put the second one on the seat. They were about 40-pounders, so they could do some damage. I had to yell to make them behave. One got down off the seat and sat quietly, while the other one sat up against the window and  looked out. When we reached their new home, I turned them loose.”

   Olson and Wilson helped create Wisconsin’s 2015-2025 beaver management plan, and expect the DNR to update it soon for the decade ahead. Olson said the DNR hasn’t been able to update its beaver-population estimates since conducting annual surveys through 2014 by helicopters, but he’s confident the 2025-2035 plan needs only tweaking, not overhauling.

   Wilson, likewise, said Wisconsin is “up to its neck” in beavers. He said many areas haven’t been trapped in years, while some trappers have caught 500 to 600 beavers in recent springs. Catches that size aren’t the norm, however. The DNR’s 2022-23 trapper survey estimated 1,804 trappers caught 21,287 beavers a year ago, or 12 per trapper.

   The current season opened Nov. 4 and runs through April 30 in northern Wisconsin. The season in most of southern Wisconsin ended March 31, and the season along the Mississippi River opened Dec. 4 and closed March 15.

   “We’ll probably see more trapping with pelt prices at $30, but who knows how much more,” Wilson said. “Traps aren’t cheap, and it’s still a lot of time and work lugging out 40-pound beavers, skinning them and stretching the pelts.”

A beaver climbs an embankment to gather branches from nearby willows and poplar trees it cut for food. — Eric Christensen photo

Beavers have a love-hate relationship with people, building dams and creating wetlands while also destroying prized trees, flooding roads and blocking culverts.

— Patrick Durkin photos

Beavers built this lodge from poplar trees and tag alders they cut from the pond's surrounding forest and creek bottoms.

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2 comentarios

06 abr

😂 Driving with beavers. That’s a first!

Our trapper caught 41 on our 254 acre wetland last month. The biggest was 68lbs. He was happy to make a little money this year!

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05 abr

Nice article Pat. Wonder if Mr. Wilson used that old chestnut of ‘…if I have to stop this car!’ on those rowdy beaver?

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