A gnawing problem grows worse

May 23, 1999|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Sun Staff

What's brought the beaver back? Simple: war, ecological engineering and a shaky global economy.

Dennis Whighan says he tried everything before he was forced to get rough. An ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Southern Anne Arundel County, he had been recording and studying plant life in a mature, nearly virgin forest in Edgewater for 20 years when he had his first run-in with an enemy who would soon begin killing his trees.

Beavers.

About a decade ago, they built a dam that clogged up a nearby stream and flooded the forest. Whighan tried all manner of beaver baffles -- putting pipes in the dam, draining the ponds. But after about four years, half the trees in the woods were dead, rotted by the encroaching water. He and his colleagues called for help from trappers; to the distress of some area residents, the beavers did not come out of the battle alive.

For Whighan, it was simple: It was them or him, or at least his rare old forest. It will take 150 years for the wetlands created by the beaver to grow into a mature forest again, and with a lifetime of experiments at stake, Whighan was not about to give up the rest of the forest. These days, he carefully watches the remaining half of his forest.

"What beaver are doing in this state," he says, "some people don't like."

But that's always been true for the beaver -- a cooing, web-footed creature that resembles a bear cub and waddles with a confidence befitting its almost human ability to dramatically and permanently alter its environment.

A pair of beavers can take down a small forest, maybe 400 trees, inside a year. They are workaholics, perhaps because their work is never done -- they must build their dams ever higher to ensure easy water access to food around their ponds.

These days, though, the beaver's life is easier than ever: The wolves are long gone and so are most trappers. There are new sources of food and new materials for home-making. Some beavers don't even dam their own ponds anymore -- they build their mud-and-stick lodges right in the middle of storm-water ponds financed and constructed by taxpayers.

But while the beaver problem -- Whighan might call it a disaster -- is well-known among scientists, farmers and trappers, it hasn't shown up on the general public's radar. Proof of that came last month, when beavers surfaced in the Tidal Basin in Washington. A family of beavers was eating its way through the capital's blossoming cherry trees. But when they were trapped and removed, many people worried over their fate as if they were still a rare species.

The truth is, today's beaver is the beneficiary of what might be called ecological welfare.

If foreign stock markets don't recover and political instability continues to depress demand for fur, these historically important rodents may surpass deer as the most invasive suburban pest in Maryland.

Making a comeback

With its thick, silky fur, the beaver was hunted conservatively in Maryland by Native Americans careful not to tamper with its propagation. Its fate changed, though, when white settlers arrived; the fur was so coveted in Europe that trappers in search of it drove Westward expansion.

By the early 1960s, only a handful of beavers remained in the extreme western part of Maryland. It was then that state wildlife preservationists reintroduced it to Pretty Boy Reservoir in Baltimore County and a few other spots where it had been trapped out years before. Protected, beavers extended their range. About 15 years ago, they reached critical mass.

In the beginning, their comeback wasn't a problem -- fur prices in European and Asian markets were at an all-time high. One beaver hide brought $40 in the late 1980s. The worse the U.S. economy, the better the global market for beaver.

War in Eastern Europe, one of the world's biggest fur markets, caused the first big drop in demand. Who could afford fur coats if they couldn't afford bread? And since the beginning of last year, when the Asian stock market crashed, drying up the other big market for fur, calls to a regional hot line to report nuisance beavers have been constant. This year is shaping up to be the worst in years for trappers. At $5 a skin, beavers are not worth hunting.

Eager to plug up any running water, beavers are flooding roads, farms, parks and military bases like Aberdeen Proving Ground. For a short time, beavers lived in a storm-water sewer in urban Pikesville.

To Clif Horton, regional coordinator of the Wildlife Heritage Division of the Maryland Division of Natural Resources, the fact that beavers thrive in marginal spots, often storm-water ponds, is a tribute to their adaptability.

Their dam-building activity, he says, acts as a filter, producing high-quality water. Their ultimate contribution -- and the reason they were reintroduced -- is to help renew aquatic environments.

"Biodiversity is increased three-fold," Horton says, noting that frogs, salamanders and ducks begin living in ponds created by beavers.

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