Gunpowder River as 'Garden,' Not Nature ParkAfter reading...


June 26, 1993

Gunpowder River as 'Garden,' Not Nature Park

After reading Marianne Roebber's June 15 letter regarding the beaver population of the Gunpowder River watershed, I feel compelled to respond. Her view is distorted and does not reflect an intimate knowledge of the river.

My qualifications: I am on the river at least once a week for long periods of time through all seasons, at all times of day, in all kinds of weather. I am a fly fisherman.

Now, some history: The beaver population, which was limited to one colony above Falls Road and another between York and Bluemont roads, literally exploded late in 1991 and into 1992. I can personally tell you that we went from a single beaver dam that had stood for years between Falls Road and Prettyboy Dam to five in 1992 alone along that single 1 1/2 -mile stretch. Entire dams appeared over periods of days. The progress was shocking.

More than the effect on the river, mature trees were toppled and many more girdled (the bark chewed off up to a distance of about three feet). This occurred not just on the banks, but over entire hillsides.

Ms. Roebber's characterization of the damage consisting of ''a few dozen trees'' reflects either an utter lack of knowledge of the river or a deliberate minimalization of the problem. It is simply not true.

As to her statement that ''there is no sign of beaver life all along that stretch of the river,'' again it reflects either a lack of knowledge or a deliberate misstatement.

I watched an adult beaver foraging for food just below the old beaver dam above Falls Road on the evening of this past Memorial Day. I also watched a juvenile beaver swim within five feet of me at dawn on a recent Sunday below York Road. The beavers are there if you know how to approach them, and they will re-populate.

And when they overpopulate, which they shall, they will have to be trapped again. Robert Bachman, head of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, recently stated in a speech that the only natural control on beaver populations in Maryland is the availability of suitable trees.

Beaver will stop overpopulating only when they have stripped all the trees from a given area. Anyone who does not understand or believe that should visit some of the beaver swamps of northern Michigan. There are no predators of the beaver left in Maryland other than man.

Ms. Roebber's desire for ''a nature park'' is admirable but hopelessly out of touch with the reality of the 20th century.

Simply read Douglas Birch's excellent article, ''Natural Maryland: The Way it Was,'' in the June 16 Sun to discover how much this land has changed since we Europeans arrived. We have to be realistic about what we have left, what our choices are, and do our best to steward it for our children.

But recognize, we are gardeners here, not disinterested observers of nature. The question of trout habitat versus an overpopulation of beavers represents the kind of decisions our Department of Natural Resources faces every day and will continue to face into the future.

To allow North America's largest rodent to do what rodents do best (i.e., reproduce) simply because it is indigenous is oversimplifying a complex issue and abdicating our responsibility to the land.

I know this: The Gunpowder River is a truly special place because of its trout. The water quality and the available food provide something truly rare in these times and in this place. It is a living trout habitat.

There are only a handful of places like it on the East Coast and even fewer in the mid-Atlantic. Forgive me if I prefer it to a nursery for the super-prolific beaver.

Ms. Roebber's tone was apparently intended to denigrate fly fishermen and their avocation as silly and peripheral to the conservation movement.

But the efforts, dollars and votes organized by such organizations as Trout Unlimited and the Maryland Fly Anglers, among others, have done enormous good for the Gunpowder, the Jones Falls and many other Maryland river systems. Fly anglers share many of her goals and make much more logical allies than enemies.

Is the Conibear trap inhumane? I don't know what that means. I do know that nature is cruel and hard and worries little about how its creatures die. It is effective, and nature does appreciate effectiveness.

If you want to see the damage the beavers have done, go to the river and truly observe. If you want to see the living beavers left behind by the DNR's trapping, go to the river when the animals are active -- before dawn or at dusk or in inclement weather. The Gunpowder is a wonderful place. But it is a garden, not a true wilderness sanctuary.

We must steward it very carefully and sometimes make unpleasant decisions if we are to pass it on to our children in anything approximating its current state. The future that beavers -- left to their own devices -- represent is not a garden but a

treeless nest of oversized rodents.

Robert T. Wilke


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