The Rouse Co. built Columbia as a suburban utopia, complete with manufactured lakes and scenic pathways. Now some residents are concerned that a different kind of master builder is chopping away at its beauty.
A pair of beavers -- those four-legged, furry builders with chisel-like teeth and webbed hind feet -- are gnawing and felling saplings and other trees along picturesque Lake Elkhorn in Columbia's Owen Brown village. That activity concerns longtime Lake Elkhorn walkers William Ewart and Norman La Cholter, both of Oakland Mills.
"They are doing some very ambitious chewing on some rather large trees and small saplings," said Mr. Ewart, who has counted 79 gnawed trees along the lake.
Concerned about large trees disappearing from around the 37-acre lake and the potential for damage to trees in nearby yards, Mr. Ewart called the Columbia Association (CA) about a week ago to alert officials about his observation. "They said I had to call the Owen Brown Village to see if they wanted to do anything."
Ruth Bose, Owen Brown's village manager, said Mr. Ewart's call is the only complaint. She said the village board will discuss the situation at its meeting Tuesday. "We will not make requests of CA until after the meeting," she said.
Apparently, word spread about Mr. Ewart's call, triggering four callers to voice support for the beavers. "So far, the beavers are winning 4-to-1," Ms. Bose said Tuesday.
Charles "Chic" Rhodehamel, CA's assistant director of open space maintenance, said the two beavers really aren't a problem.
"It's not out of control. It's normal beaver behavior," he said, adding beavers have been in Lake Elkhorn on and off for about 10 years and in Columbia for about 15 years.
Nearly five years ago, beavers built dams and lodges in Dorsey Hall, causing residents to worry about flooding and sliding property value, said Philip Norman, open space coordinator for county recreation and parks. The county relocated the animals and installed devices to control the water level.
Experts say beavers are popping up all across the state and on the East Coast.
"Beavers are common in every county of the state, and the population is rapidly increasing," said Robert Colona, a furbearer project manager for the wildlife division of the Department of Natural Resources. He said it's almost impossible to determine the exact number of beavers in Columbia and Maryland. "Anyone who gives you numbers is lying to you," he said.
As spring approaches, his department is getting lots of complaints, triggered by activity of the young from last year that were driven out of their lodges. Besides chewing on trees, beavers build dams that can sometimes cause streams to flood.
"Beavers are neat animals, they can modify habitats," Mr. Colona said. "That's good and bad."
Beavers enhance living conditions for fish and waterfowl.
"The problems come around when they come into contact with humans," Mr. Colona said.
The beaver population began to grow in Maryland in the early 1960s. "They were limited to just Garrett County and the wildlife division started relocating them further east," Mr. Colona said.
Beavers spread by following streams and rivers, including the Patuxent and Patapsco drainage systems.
Averaging between 20 and 40 pounds, they gravitate toward water to get food and build lodges. They can stay in one area between six months and six years, depending on the food supply, Mr. Colona said.
"Everyone thinks they eat bark on trees, which they don't," he said. "They eat the cambium, the paper thin, green layer between the bark and the wood itself, which contains nutrients from the leaves."
When they gnaw a tree, "they are trying to drop the tree to fell it, and when it falls down they feed off the small branches."
The legal trapping season in Howard County officially ended yesterday, Mr. Colona said. But he said if serious damage arises, residents can call the Department of Natural Resources to get special waivers to trap the beavers outside the legal season.
Tuesday morning at Lake Elkhorn, Mr. Ewart walked along the woody section of the 2-mile pathway, pointing out the sharp beaver gnawings and two branch-covered beaver lodges, where the beavers store their food.
He said he first noticed the gnaw marks in the fall. "These are hungry little guys," he said. "I don't know where they put all the wood. I guess they are building condominiums."
Mr. La Cholter suggests the CA move the beavers to a natural setting and replace the damaged trees.
"We enjoy watching them," said Owen Brown resident Sue Nerin, who stood near the beaver lodges Tuesday with her friend Maud Banks.
"If it doesn't bother CA, it doesn't bother me," Mrs. Nerin said.