Killing of beavers stirs controversy


June 01, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

On a lush spring day, in a forest with bird song, it's hard to believe that anything needs fixing along the Gunpowder Falls.

The river here is clear and full, tinted green by a high canopy of oak, tulip poplar and hemlock. A rocky trail winds through a carpet of young trees, past wild azaleas and stands of mountain laurel taller than a man.

Butterflies rise from riverbanks flanked by skunk cabbage, marsh blue violets and the broad fluted leaves of hellebore.

Out in the swift current -- barely aware of each other in this emerald spot just 12 miles north of the Baltimore Beltway -- two mallards and a lone trout fisherman try their luck.

But someone else has been here, too, cutting down or killing trees, damming the river and working hard to change the environment more to his liking. And the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is determined to put a stop to it.

The culprit this time not man, but beaver. Spurred by anglers who fear that the industrious rodents will damage the river's fragile trout habitat, the DNR hired a professional trapper to remove as many as 30 beavers from a nine-mile stretch of the river from Prettyboy Dam to Bluemount Road.

The trapper killed 13 beavers before his permit expired on April 1, but his traps have sprung a continuing debate among those who love the river but differ over how it should be managed.

One of them is Martin Larrabee, sure-footed enough even at 83 to lead a small party down the root-laced trail that runs alongside the Gunpowder Falls just below the dam at Prettyboy Reservoir.

"We won't see any beaver damage until we get further down," Mr. Larrabee says. But the word "damage" draws an immediate objection from his fellow hikers. The debate is on.

"Can we use a more scientific term, Martin?" says Louise Matzinger, 64. "What the beavers are doing is not beaver damage; it's beaver activity,"

Ms. Matzinger chairs the Gunpowder Falls State Park Advisory Committee, a citizens group that advises park managers. What the beavers do, she said, is natural. And, though her group hasn't taken a vote on the issue, she said, "we do not believe it is beneficial to eliminate a native species from an area they are indigenous to."

Mr. Larrabee is on the park advisory committee, too, and he's a longtime defender of the Gunpowder. But he has brought this group to the river to point out hundreds of trees that have been felled or girdled by gnawing beavers. In places, the riverbank is dotted with pointy stumps. The forest canopy has thinned, and it looks like damage to him.

It also looks like damage to the DNR, which has worked hard for years with Baltimore watershed authorities and Trout Unlimited, an anglers group, to develop the trout fishery.

Thanks to the park's forest canopy and the icy water released from the bottom of Prettyboy Dam, this stretch of river now has a naturally growing population of European brown trout, as well as a few native brook trout and Western rainbow trout.

Anglers still have to put back what they catch. But some outdoor writers call the Gunpowder one of the 10 best trout streams in the Eastern states.

Fishermen and wildlife managers fear the beavers' dams and tree-cutting will slow down and warm up the swift, cold water the trout need for spawning. But even the removal of 13 beavers is unlikely to end that threat.

"My prediction is that there will be beaver in that section of the river again next year," said Peter S. Jayne, supervisor of the DNR's furbearer program. "To meet the needs of the trout people, it will have to be an annual or semiannual maintenance project."

That's what critics of the trapping want to prevent.

"They're making a pre-emptive strike against wildlife," said Wayne Pacelle, national director of the Fund for Animals in Washington, D.C. "Beaver have long inhabited this area and have long affected stream flow and stream content. And if in certain areas a stream's capacity for trout is reduced, then so be it. The world is not just a cornucopia for hunters and fishermen."

Changes wrought by man

Wildlife scientists like beaver ponds. They create new wetlands that attract new species, including black and wood ducks, insect-eating birds, turtles, salamanders, sunfish, perch and sometimes bass.

Dr. Joseph S. Larson, a beaver and wetlands researcher and director of the University of Massachusetts Environmental Institute at Amherst, said he is also sympathetic, in principle, to the idea that trout and beavers can coexist.

"Before we [Europeans] got here, there were probably many streams that supported beaver and trout," he said. Back then, if beavers moved in and warmed things up, the trout could retreat to colder, swifter parts of the stream, then return after the dams broke and the beavers left.

But man has changed all that. Trout streams are rare and fragile; beavers are not.

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