• Notes From The Frontier

Leave It To Beavers

Beavers “built” early America and Canada and were nearly wiped out. But now they're back with a vengeance.

You may not think beavers are particularly amazing. But you’d be wrong. You may not think beavers had much to do with North American history. And you’d be doubly wrong. In fact, the buck-teethed, flat-tailed, furry, mildly comical mammals are remarkable in many ways. And they were the driving force behind early settlement of North America.

The American beaver, like its closely related and very similar cousin across the sea, the European beaver, have had the misfortune throughout history of sporting an anatomy that human beings found highly exploitable and especially profitable. First of all, beavers have castor glands in the butt that were highly treasured beginning in ancient times. They were originally thought to be in the testicles but are in fact at the base of the tale and both male and female beavers have them. Beavers use their castor glands to mark territory, waterproof their fur, establish familial relationships, and they secrete their butt juice like little love notes to mates. You’d think it would stink to high heaven, but it smells more like a combination of vanilla with raspberry floral hints.

The ancient Greeks and Romans used beaver castoreum oil for medical purposes. Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century Benedictine abbess and scholar, wrote that powdered beaver “testicles” drunk in wine would reduce a fever. (The castoreum gland, when dried, looks just like testes.) Castoreum has also been used to treat headaches, which makes sense given that it contains salicylic acid, the main ingredient in aspirin. It became popular to treat earaches, toothaches, colic, gout, inducing sleep, preventing sleep, and general strengthening of the brain. Later castoreum was used in perfumes and as food flavoring.

But beaver butt glands were not the only thing humans valued. The ancient Greeks and Romans also found that beaver pelts were excellent for clothing and “felting.” As far back as Homer, the process of felting (removing fur from the pelt and processing with heat and pressure to make a highly pliable but tough material) was used. Russia, Scandinavia and Central Asia were the major suppliers of beaver pelts until the 1400s, when beaver populations in those areas became depleted. Beaver trapping and hunting spread like an epidemic to Europe and by 1600, their beaver population, too, had become depleted to near extinction.

But the European market for hats was greater than ever and beavers had been found to be extremely common in the New World. Fur companies, most famously the Hudson Bay Company, flocked to North America and established fur trading posts. And men from England, France, Russia, and Holland came to the New World to make their fortunes trapping beaver. They traded first with Native American, who provided beaver pelts for guns, gunpowder, steel tools, and, later, textiles. The beaver trade became so robust that it sustained the early Colonial economies, drove colonization of and immigration to the New World, and fosteeds huge growth of the shipping industry between Europe, America and Canada.

But that’s not all they “traded.” Europeans brought devastating diseases to Native populations that depleted the human population, while also decimating the beaver population. And the Europeans also imported war, for the beaver trade became so fierce that, by 1649, European countries and their respective Native allies, were warring for beaver territory in North America.

The beaver’s popularity for its fur and castor glands was not the only misfortune to which the beaver was subjected. Native Americans had long known that beaver tail was delicious and fur trappers adopted the epicurean practice. Lewis and Clark mentioned eating beaver tail “whenever we wish.” And, the famous Native American painter, George Catlin, wrote: “This is truly the land of Epicures; we are... glutted with the delicious food of beaver tails and buffalo tongues." Beaver tail is said to taste similar to some fish. Given the similarity and the fact that beaver are semi-aquatic mammals, medieval church authorities even considered beaver tail as a kind of fish acceptable for Lenten fare!

But having its tail used as an epicurean delight was not the most perverse indignity the beaver had to endure. And here the story takes a truly strange turn—the name of the mammal we’re discussing in this post happens to also be crude sexual vernacular for a women’s private part! One might assume that origin came from early fur trappers (who were nothing if not crude) whose most desirous commodities –even above whiskey and women—were beaver pelts. And so women were likened to that closest to their heart.

But the truth is even more shocking! The term “beaver” comes from pubic wigs that prostitutes wore made of beaver fur! These pubic wigs were called “merkins” (see photograph) and they were believed to protect against sexually transmitted diseases. (Even predating the Victorian era, there was a prevalent belief that sexually transmitted diseases were spread through pubic hair.) Some merkins were even adorned with ribbons or beads for a fashion flourish.

Humans were ingenious in their methods for exploiting the poor beaver. But Nature reminds us that decimation of her species brings with it great costs humans aren’t smart enough to figure out until it’s too late. By about the 1870s, the beaver population, like the buffalo, the wolf, the passenger pigeon, the dodo, the whale, and numerous other species were driven to extinction or near extinction.

Modern ecological science has discovered just how crucial the beaver species is to our North American ecosystems. They are now called a “keystone” species, meaning they are an absolutely crucial species that the larger ecosystem largely depends upon, and that, when removed, causes dire consequences for the environment. And those consequences affect many other species that rely on beavers to maintain their habitat. How does this work? A surprising number of ways.

First of all, beavers create dams to raise water levels so they can build their homes, or lodges, in the water. By effectively creating an island with an underwater entrance, they are protected from many predators. The ponds and wetlands beaver create become habitats upon which many species depend. In fact, nearly half of all endangered and threatened species in North America rely on wetlands to survive. And 80% of all North American wild animal species depend on wetlands. Likewise, beaver are crucial in the protection of many water fowl and game fish on which the hunting and fishing industries depend. They are crucial, for example, to protecting salmon habitat.

By creating wetlands, beavers contribute hugely to helping to purify water. Their constructions create silt, which filters impurities and pollution. Beavers dams can also slow flood waters, contribute to higher water tables and control erosion. Beaver create more bodies of water that can help control forest fires and provide fire lines, as well as water supplies for fire fighters. With the dramatic increase of fire in the west, this is a vital benefit.

Nature designed a beaver’s anatomy as the ultimate building machine. First of all, they have immense front teeth literally made of iron—they are orange from iron oxide—and they never stop growing throughout the life of the beaver. They have long front and hind claws for grasping tree limbs, webbed hind paws for swimming, and a large flat tail used for anchoring the beaver as it sits to gnaw down trees. Their barrel bodies make them especially buoyant, their multi-layered fur provides amazing insulation from the cold temperatures and freezing water, and they possess a transparent set of eyelids that enable them to see under water, as if wearing goggles.

There’s a reason that our language is replete with sayings about the hard-working beaver— “eager beaver,” busy beaver,” “beaver away.” All indicate the industriousness of the beaver and its extraordinary building ability. They build sophisticated lodges with underwater entrances and two chambers for eating and nesting. A large lodge may hold up to 18 beavers. Beavers are highly social. The parents are monogamous and both care for the babies. The extended family lives in the lodge and yearlings also help care for the babies. Beavers have even been known to share lodges with muskrats!

Beavers mound domes of sticks, limbs and mud, called “lodges” in the middle of bodies of water. They have underwater entrances that protect them from predators that include wolves, coyotes, bears, mink, lynx, bobcats, raptors, and humans. But, humans are by far the most dangerous threat to beavers through shooting, trapping, water pollution, and draining wetlands.

Before whites came to North America, it was estimated that the beaver popular was as high as 400 million on the entire continent. By 1900, that population had been nearly depleted to the brink of extinction. Citizens and the government realized that something drastic had to be done and, beginning in the 1920, 30s and 40s, programs were started to protect the beaver and introduce it back into the wild. In the 1940s, the state of Idaho relocated beavers by packing them into boxes, loading them onto planes and dropping them by parachute — you read that right, parachute! — to repopulate beaver-less areas and help prevent erosion often caused by cattle by damming wild streams above farms. The program worked.

Today, beavers are rebounding, some might even say with a vengeance. Their population in the lower 48 U.S. is believed to be about 6-12 million and growing. They’ve made a dramatic rebound in Yellowstone, along with wolves, which have, in turn, had a dramatic affect on the entire ecosystem of Yellowstone. Beavers help stabilize populations of numerous animals and plants, including elk, salmon, wolves, buffalo, deer, willow and aspen, numerous types of birds, and many other species.

As with the return of other once-endangered species, the beaver’s comeback has brought controversy and conflict with human populations. Sometimes beaver cause flooding or they cut down trees that people want to keep. Trees can be protected with wire casings or by painting the bases with latex paint and mason’s sand.

Flooding is more problematic. Trapping, shooting, removing dams and lodges with heavy equipment, or even using explosives are not only inhumane but don’t work. Beavers are amazingly persistent and where beavers have been killed, others will quickly move in. There are other more creative methods that are more effective and less expensive, some of them with clever names like CastorMaster, Clemson Leveler, and The Beaver Deceiver, that use beaver's natural behavior to advantage in controlling flooding. Many of the systems rely on underwater fencing, high mesh cylinders, filters or culvert systems. These techniques allow water flow but still enable beavers to live in their habitat and preserve all the ancillary ecological benefits that beaver lodges and dams bring. The challenge will be for humans to be as ingenious and industrious as beavers in solving challenges of co-habitation.


  • Notes From the Frontier