Comeback Beavers Butt Heads With Humans

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
November 23, 2004

November's full moon, coming this Friday, is traditionally called the full beaver moon, because it signals the time to set traps for beavers before swamps freeze.

A gentler interpretation of the name given to the November moon, according to the Farmers' Almanac, is that this is when busy beavers are feverishly preparing their dens for winter. (See sidebar for names for the full moon at other times of the year.)

Whatever the name's origin, the 2004 full beaver moon serves as a spotlight on North America's largest rodent. Harvested and driven from its habitat until it disappeared from much of the northeastern U.S., the beaver is now making such a strong comeback that it is becoming a nuisance in some areas.

From the mid-1600s through the 1800s beaver trapping helped spur European exploration of North America. Beaver pelts became a prized commodity and were traded as currency in many parts of the frontier. Fortunes were made in their fur.

Beavers were pursued so relentlessly that by the early 1900s many beaver populations were in trouble or wiped out. The situation was aggravated by the clearing of much of the beaver's habitat for agriculture.

"In the 1930s they were at a low point," said beaver expert Dietland Mueller-Schwarze of the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. "But the latter half of the century has seen large growth in populatons all over North America."

Multiple factors favored the beaver recovery. Federal and state authorities, supported by hunters and trappers, enacted sustainable harvesting regulations. Beavers were reintroduced into their former range throughout the northeastern U.S., where the decline of agriculture enabled them to thrive and expand.

Meanwhile, plunging demand for pelts at home and abroad has reduced the number of trappers in the field. Some U.S. states have even banned trapping.

Scott Hartman is the national director of membership and state affiliate relations for the National Trappers Association (NTA), which is based in Bedford, Indiana. He notes that the market for furs and pelts dropped precipitously in the mid-1980s and remained depressed until 2000. Since that time it has seen a slow recovery, but profits remain low for the time-intensive pursuit, which is still practiced by an estimated 150,000 U.S. fur trappers.

The reduced trapping pressure has coincided with the longer-term reforestation of former farmlands.

"With the reforestation of our state, the beaver population has rebounded," said wildlife biologist Peter Picone. Picone works for Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection at the Burlington field office. "In 1800 Connecticut was 75 percent pasture. Today it is 57 percent forested and the [restored] forested habitat is prime for their recovery."

But as beavers flourish and expand, their habitat is increasingly human habitat—and the two mammals often butt heads.

Continued on Next Page >>


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