Proposal to trim beaver population in Carroll park gets biting criticism

Piney Run plan undercuts park's mission, some say

October 29, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Until a few years ago, towering oak and hickory trees with thick branches projecting over the water grew all along the shores of Piney Run Lake in Sykesville. But, now, in many lake coves, barren patches of ground, dotted with pointed stumps, wood chips and half-gnawed trees, have replaced the forest.

A growing population of beavers that favor the largest and most valuable trees in Piney Run Park bear the brunt of the blame for the changed look of the forest, said Loren W. Lustig, the park manager. Besides munching on trees, the rodents are also tunneling from the lake banks toward the forest, causing erosion, he said.

"Beaver are not out of control," he said, "but ecologically speaking, we are seeing significant areas of the park change."

To control a beaver population that is estimated at 200 in Piney Run Park, the county has arranged for a trapper to exterminate about 20 percent of the animals during this winter's hunting season. The hunter will place underwater traps that are designed to instantly kill any beaver that swims into one. Animal rights activists have called the traps torturous.

"This goes against everything the park stands for," said Doreen McLean, a Finksburg resident who volunteers at the park and kayaks there. "They are all about teaching kids about nature and here they are killing part of the animal cycle. It is cruel to get rid of the beaver."

The park offers popular environmental programs throughout the year. Its Nature Center attracts schoolchildren eager to learn about wildlife and the lake.

"This was never meant to be a beautifully manicured lake," said Lou Ann Dent, who kayaks on the 300-acre lake. "This was built to be a nature preserve."

The park is only the most recent area to contend with beavers and their hardworking ways. The animals have taken up quarters in such unlikely habitats as Spa Creek and Waterworks Park in Annapolis, where they established several lodges this year, including one in a storm drain.

Beavers have built lodges of timber and mud at shore points in many coves at Piney Run Lake, a 2 billion-gallon body of water that was built to be a reservoir. Families with as many as 10 animals can inhabit the lodges and constantly build onto them, Lustig said.

The lodges also offer a near-perfect habitat for small fish, turtles and snakes. Anglers favor lodge areas.

Near the Nature Center, visitors glimpse beavers swimming near the two active lodges in the cove. Kayakers encounter curious beavers that splash boaters with their tails.

"The beaver are a big draw here," said Dot Sumey, whose home overlooks the lake. "I see them all the time, even on the ice in the winter. Yes, they have taken trees, but that's nature. This is not something we should try to change."

From the pontoon boat yesterday, Lustig spotted fresh cuttings, probably made within the past 24 hours. He pointed out recently felled trees, some and what he called "classic beaver stumps" - uncovered by vegetation and sharpened to a point.

In many areas, beavers have stripped trees as far back as 30 feet from the lake edge.

He also saw "girdled trees" from which beavers had removed so much bark the trees probably will not survive. An adult beaver can consume as much as 3 pounds of bark a day, in addition to the wood it uses to build its lodge, Lustig said.

"It is like a chainsaw at work," Lustig said. "They are adept and persistent at their work."

"Beaver could dominate the forest and determine what type trees we have here," said Lustig. "In many areas of the lake, there are no trees against the lake edge because of beaver. We have a brushy habitat, clear cut of trees by beaver. This should all be forest to the very edges."

Park naturalist Elaine Sweitzer said some trees survive the debarking, and those that die create habitat for other park creatures such as woodpeckers and wood ducks. Even the trees that beavers take down have roots that hold the soil and keep erosion at bay, she said.

"From nature's standpoint, the beaver are doing us a favor," she said. "In 18 years, I have seen no significant increase in damage. Destroying them is a management decision, and it is a hard one for us. All I can say is that I hope the beaver are smarter than the trapper."

Lustig said: "Beaver in reasonable numbers enhance the experience of the lake. My job is to try to find a balance."

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