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OPINION | RICHARD MASON: Mother Nature's environmental engineers

by Richard Mason | October 24, 2021 at 1:47 a.m.

Beaver are everywhere. After recovering from being nearly trapped to extinction by early fur trappers, they have returned to almost every stream in our state.

Environmental success stories are sometimes hard to find; however, the creation of new wetlands by our beaver population has certainly helped the Arkansas environment. That may cause some head-shaking by bottomland timber owners, but the beaver are just trying to restore what they lost to rural development. And the beavers are winning.

The first beaver incident happened on the edge of the El Dorado Golf and Country Club. A small stream flows from the southeast portion of the golf course to flow under Calion Road. One night beaver moved up the stream into the Country Club area and managed to down a large tree.

It fell at about 9 p.m., bringing down adjacent power lines. Our whole side of town was plunged into blackness, at the exact time anti- environmental President George Bush was making his 1992 Republican Convention acceptance speech. Headline: "Beaver Pulls Plug On Bush."

My second story, which comes from my friend Charlie Thomas, occurred along a tributary of the lower Ouachita River. A few years ago a beaver control expert working for a timber company came upon a large dam strategically located in a small creek where the stream flowed between two large cypress trees.

Beavers know exactly where to build their dams, and this one was backing up water covering 160 acres of hardwood timber. The dam had to go.

The beaver control man inserted a charge of dynamite and stepped back. When the charge failed to blow the dam, he peered into the hole left by the blast. Much to his surprise, he saw a tangle of steel running parallel to the dam. "My God," he said aloud, "they are reinforcing these dams with steel."

However, as he looked closer, he determined an inner-spring mattress had lodged between the trees. The mattress padding had rotted off, and the beaver had incorporated the springs into their dam.

Another story has to do with the restocking of beaver in an inaccessible area of the Rocky Mountains. It seems a wildlife biologist came up with a plan that sounds like something out of a comic book: parachute beavers into the area.

After a few trials to determine the correct size of the parachute, a planeload of beavers was flown to the deep backwoods of the Rockies and parachuted into the area. With teeth that can cut through a big willow tree, the beavers quickly chewed up the parachutes and headed downhill to the nearest stream.

The beaver in Yellowstone are making a comeback thanks to the restocking of wolves. The wolves were restocked because the over-population of elk stripped the aspen trees, causing the trees to die and limit the beavers' food supply. Add wolves and presto! The beaver are multiplying.

Beaver do cause damage, and not just by dropping trees on power lines. If you have ever walked along a stream frequented by beavers, you'll come to a dam. Occasionally these dams will create a lake covering as much as a couple of hundred acres. If that big lake is on your land, and if it floods and kills a big swath of your timber, then this furry environmental engineer is not high on your list of beloved animals.

That's the problem: beaver trying to reclaim their old habitat running into John Doe Timberman who is trying to make a buck from timber harvesting. As you can imagine, trying to dislodge literally thousands of beaver who are working every night to build dams is almost impossible.

Today beaver are more numerous than ever. They were almost eliminated back when beaver skins were in vogue, but today not even Republican women are wearing furs, so without natural predators the beaver are taking over our streams.

We are spinning our wheels trying to blast out the dams, hiring professional trappers, and head-lighting them along the rivers. Even stocking alligators to try to control their numbers has been tried. Nothing works. All we are doing is wasting money.

Should we just let the beaver restore their natural habitat? According to a number of studies, we have lost over 90 percent of our wetlands in the United States, and since the beavers seem to have the upper hand, our traps, dynamite, and imported alligators aren't going to stop them.

What about the benefits? Beaver dams are natural wetlands, and as we all know, wetlands have been destroyed across our country. Many areas of our state have seen an over 90 percent loss in wetlands.

The benefits derived from wetlands have been well documented by research scientists. They calculate values as high as $20,000 per acre. In Arkansas, the wood ducks and river otters are now abundant in many areas of the state because of new habitat created by beaver.

Some individuals with dollar signs in their eyes will eliminate any form of wildlife that interferes with their ability to make money. Surely we have enough vision to delegate that mentality to the dust bin of history. Consider that the amount of land that beavers flood is on a small fraction of the timber in our state. Since it already is bottomland timber and susceptible to flooding, it is toward the bottom of the list in quality.

We need to work with responsible conservationists to protect the beaver from those who would do anything to eliminate them. They are simply trying to restore our ecosystem, and they are truly the engineers who are recreating our lost wetlands.

The next time you are tramping through Arkansas' numerous river bottoms, take a close look at one of the beaver dams you come across. There are limits to what size these beaver dams should be, but limiting the size of the beaver pond is a lot easier that eliminating the beavers, and a series of small ponds is more productive than a large pond. Beavers add immeasurably to the ecosystem, and Arkansas' streams are much more wildlife-productive with beaver dams.

So the next time you hear a quorum court or the Legislature proposing a bounty on beaver, speak out for Mother Nature's furry friend.

Email Richard Mason at richard@gibraltarenergy.com.

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