Taking a bite out of spring

Beaver: A long-toothed rodent is gnawing away at a Washington tradition: its beloved blooming cherry trees.

April 09, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The United States is at war in Kosovo. President Clinton is playing host to Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji at the White House.

And this city, which considers itself the center of the political universe, is awash in beaver fever.

"Save the beaver," shouted Anne Humphrey, a federal employee on her lunch break near the Jefferson Memorial yesterday.

The crafty beaver that shocked this city on the night of April 1 by felling one of its precious cherry trees is still on the loose. It continues to evade the National Park Service, which is scrambling to find a way to get the animal out of town -- humanely, of course. So far, it's cut down four of the trees and badly damaged four more, leaving their survival very much in doubt.

And now, it appears the beaver may have an accomplice.

Callers told the Park Service yesterday that they saw two beavers swimming across the Tidal Basin. Perhaps sunning. Perhaps gloating. Certainly not hungry.

If there's anything in Washington you don't mess with, it's the cherry trees along the Tidal Basin. They bloom in beautiful pink every year. They draw hundreds of thousands of visitors. They signal the end of the winter doldrums. They just make people in this stressed-out city happy.

Sure, the beaver is only doing, well, what beavers do -- chewing down trees for their nutrient-filled bark or for dam-building material.

Park Service officials don't understand why the animals need to target their cherished tree collection, a gift from the Japanese government in 1912. They're also bewildered that the beaver attack has come during the peak of this year's blossoming, expected to last another week or so.

`Don't have any answers'

"I don't know why the beaver would have to choose here and now," said Park Service spokesman Earle Kittleman. "I don't have any answers."

Tom Barnes thinks he has the answer: The trees are "high in sugar content," said the professor of wildlife biology at the University of Kentucky. "That's why we call them `ice-cream plants.' "

The trees are sweetest at blossom time, said Barnes.

Perhaps the Tidal Basin trees were dessert after the main course -- five white cedars that have been felled, too.

After gnawing down trees, beavers sometimes drag the trunks to dam streams and create placid lakes where they can build a den.

There have been no signs of a dam in the Tidal Basin. Yet.

Because the animals are going after smaller trees, Barnes suspects they're not building a dam but merely seeking a sweet treat -- the inside layer of the bark.

The Park Service became aware of the problem when visitors reported what they said were ax marks on a cherry tree the morning of April 2. But they weren't ax marks, Park Service naturalists discovered on closer inspection. They were teeth marks. Since then, three more cherry trees have been downed.

"We have confidence in the Washington Animal League or uh, whatever it is they catch beavers with," declared Lenny Zipp, 65, on a visit from Florida to see the cherry trees.

In fact, the Park Service is responsible for catching the animal or animals. Kittleman said his staff is feverishly experimenting with methods of trapping the creatures without hurting them. When captured, the beavers will be escorted to more appropriate habitats.

"We don't have a standard procedure here for beaver control," he acknowledged. "You can't go to the shelf and pull down the manual."

As of yesterday afternoon, the suspect -- or suspects -- remained at large.

`They don't die'

Some observers are losing faith.

"How can the Department of Interior not know how to get a humane trap?" asked Rita Powell, strolling near the Tidal Basin with a seniors-only hiking club from Maryland.

She has no trouble catching the possums that infiltrate her yard in Bowie. The "Have-A-Heart" trap is her favorite.

"And they don't die," she said of the possums. "You just capture them and take them to your neighbor's yard."

On lunch break yesterday, a group of federal workers inspected a well-chewed cherry tree -- its trunk now encased in a protective rubber sleeve -- and offered a way to catch the culprit.

"Bring a mate. Tie it to a tree," suggested Liz Faunce.

Her office mate, Carolyn Korn, saw holes in the plan. "Now how do you know if it's male or female?" she asked.

Beavers work mostly at night and are sociable creatures among their own. Not with humans.

"They're mean. They're rodents. They've got big teeth," said Barnes, the wildlife biologist. "They've outsmarted a lot of humans. Oh yeah, and they've obviously outsmarted the National Park Service."

Robert P. Brooks, a professor of wildlife and wetlands at Penn State University who wrote his master's thesis on beavers, said their numbers are on the rise nationwide, thanks to cleaner streams and less trapping. They're found all over the country. And as the population grows, more beavers will appear in city parks.

"They're hungry," Brooks said. "And to them, it's just another tree. The fact that these are scenic cherry trees along the Tidal Basin is immaterial to them."

Beavers cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage -- perhaps even millions, say experts -- each year in the United States. Their dam-building often floods farmlands and roads.

The most effective way to capture a beaver is to set a lethal, neck-clamping trap under water, near where a beaver swims into his den. Alternatively, they can be shot. But the park service has every intention of keeping the cherry-tree beavers alive and well.

Good thing. Because many in Washington yesterday were coming to the beaver's defense.

"If they shot him, there'd be an uproar," said Doug Hoover, who works at a computer firm and was enjoying lunch amid the trees. "He's just kind of migratory. He's a transient beaver who happened to settle in Washington."

Pub Date: 4/09/99

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