Monday, February 12, 2007

Beaver Sign

Last week Prairiewolf and I noticed signs of beaver in the creek into which our little draw drains. I've been tempted to take pictures, but I don't want to draw attention to it, for fear of what the surrounding landowners will do.

So verbal descriptions will have to do for now. The first thing I noticed was raw wood exposed on the underneath side of a willow trunk hanging over the creek, about 15" above the ground/water. As I looked a little further, I noticed that several small saplings nearby (probably willow also) had been cut off about a foot above the ground, leaving the classic "pencil point" ending. There seems to be a small, not remotely effective, dam right by the big willow. And, as I've watched this week, I've seen a little gnawing being done on a few of the other, bigger willows upstream a bit.

I'm watching this with mixed emotions: my homeowner/gardener persona is in direct conflict with my ecological side on this one.

Beaver are a "keystone" species. That means that they change their environment in ways that create new habitat for many other species...and most of those other species are partly or wholly dependent on the beaver's manipulation of the habitat. In the Rocky Mountains, it was beaver that created the beautiful flat, lush valley meadows that so attracted early settlers. In Kansas, they are about the only way that ponds are created naturally.

In creating their ponds, beaver trap soil that would otherwise get washed out to the Gulf of Mexico (in the case of streams here). As the ponds fill in through soil settlement, they create wetlands that moderate floods, filter and purify the surface water, and recharge groundwater. The ponds and wetlands also increase the water/land boundary, increasing this productive habitat that is home to so many plants and animals. Last but not least, as the wetlands fill in, very productive woodlands and meadows are created on the rich soil left behind. So by their actions, the beaver store water in a dry environment, moderate floods, filter and purify surface waters, recharge groundwaters, increase habitat for a variety of plants and animals, and eventually capture/create exceptionally productive bottomland soil. Pretty impressive, really.

Twenty years ago, there were hardly any beaver left in Kansas. Now they are apparently inhabiting almost every drainage in the state. It's a true wildlife success story.

But, of course, as a landowner who lives only a little way away from the newly establishing beaver, all I can think of is whether or not they are going to gnaw down my precious trees. It's hard to look ahead to all the good they will do eventually, when it takes so blasted long for a tree to grow to a decent size in this prairie environment. If I lived upstream of the beaver, and if my house or outbuildings were a little too close to the water, I'd be worried about water backing up too.

So, as is unfortunately so often the case in human/animal encounters, I'm watching what happens with a leery eye. Will the beaver be allowed to remain? If they do remain, how will they impact the little area of creek that they are living on? Will they eventually venture on to my property and, if so, what will their impact be there?

Underneath I'm asking myself how I would be reacting if they were actually setting up shop, right now, in my draw. I can keep this as a philosophical question for now (and be glad that I don't have to make any actual decisions), because I don't think they'll move into a dry draw, but I may be surprised yet. And I'm disappointed in myself for not being absolutely certain that I'd let them "do their thing."

I'm feeling a little guilty, too, about not knocking on the doors of the nearest homes to tell them what I am seeing. I'm justifying that because, so far, I can see no signs that the beaver have impacted their planted landscapes and their homes are well out of the flood plain, as far as I can tell. The typical knee-jerk reaction would unfortunately be to shoot or trap the beaver to get rid of them. Heck, even I am feeling somewhat nervous and unsettled about having them so close. (And by that comment, I simply mean that I am willing to put up with much more "disruption" - which is usually temporary in my experience - from wildlife than many folks are.) So I'm erring on the side that will give the beaver a chance to do their thing.

Feeling distinctly hypocritical, I'll sign off for now and continue to keep an eye on their progress.


Paul D. said...

I can attest to your comments about the role of beavers. Growing up in MA, I used to frequent the Audubon Sanctuary in Lenox. There was a wonderful beaver colony with a huge dam that you could walk over containing a really great large pond.

When I last visited about 13 years, ago, the pond was all silted in and trees were beginning to grow in what was now a nice marsh. The beaver were gone...but a mile north beaver (perhaps the descendents of the ones I knew) had built an even grander dam and a much larger pond.

By the way if you are ever in Lawrence, there are beaver in the Baker Wetlands along 31st Street. I'm not giving anything away here as they are well known.

Gaia Gardener: said...

So Baker Wetlands is alive and well! That's great to hear. What ever happened to the bypass they were trying to build around the south side of the city that was threatening it?

Hopefully I'll get up that way one of these days soon.

Incidentally, I ventured further north along our creek and found a bigger beaver dam upstream, forming a beautiful little pond. The dam is nowhere near large enough to walk on, but I'm going to enjoy watching the evolution of the riparian area from the road.