Beaver trouble in Gatineau Park

Canada's national symbol matches wits with rangers and local citizenry in a friendly war between man and beast
February 09, 1959

On occasion, the thing we love becomes a persistent nuisance, straining the emotions and bringing furrows to the brow. On this particular occasion it is the beavers of Gatineau Park, just across the river from Ottawa, the capital of Canada, where park officials are carrying on an odd form of creeping warfare designed to hold the beloved opposition in check but not wipe him out altogether. It is a campaign in which the attackers move against the fortifications of the enemy with small enthusiasm. But it has to be done because, as far as Gatineau Park is concerned, the furry Canadian national symbol has got entirely out of hand.

Fly over Gatineau Park's 72,000 acres and you see a magnificent, forested expanse pock-marked with denuded areas logged off by beavers. Penetrate the park on the ground and you encounter furious cottage owners who have suffered beaver damage in one form or another. Talk to park personnel and they will admit they are in a continuing fight to keep beavers from flooding roads, chopping up scenic areas or endangering property when their deserted dams collapse and cause flash floods.

Yet at the same time you learn that most Canadians have considerable affection for the very animals causing the damage. And well they might, for aside from being an interesting and engaging animal the beaver is responsible for the opening of the Canadian wilderness. It was the beaver's tawny hide that brought the trappers who paved the way for the settlers who built the Canadian nation. As a symbol the beaver is to Canada what the eagle is to the United States or the lion to England.

Gatineau Park with its hills and lakes is the pride of the Canadian capital. So far, 52,000 of its total acreage has been acquired by the Federal District Commission for development as a recreational showplace. There are four large lakes and 40 small ones. Trickling down its hillsides through hundreds of ravines are innumerable small streams bordered by a rich growth of birch, maple, poplar, pine, oak and balsam. It is wonderful country for tourists and ideal for beavers. In fact, in the old "days of the big fur trade Gatineau beaver pelts were generally considered to be the finest of all.

As the FDC continued to spend money to develop the park into a scenic playground it became apparent that there were no beavers there. Park Ranger John Scott says that even when he took his job 18 years ago there wasn't a single beaver in the whole place. They had been trapped out decades before. The region once famous for fine furs was devoid of the species. The FDC took note of this and decided to do something about it. This was one place in Canada that should not be without beavers and, furthermore, the admirable and lovable animals would attract more tourists.

To everybody's delight, eight beavers were turned loose in the park in 1940, and the following year nine more were planted near Lake Fortune in the southeast corner of the park. In time they and their offspring were putting on aquatic shows for tourists on summer evenings. It was all a great success—but then it unexpectedly began to take on ominous aspects. Long before the FDC would admit it the beavers were causing official headaches. They spread over the park and beyond. Hugh Conn, now fur conservation expert for the Indian Branch of the Citizenship Department and Canada's greatest beaver authority, has traced individual beavers on journeys up to 65 miles.

Today the forests around Lake Fortune have been destroyed, the trees felled by beavers or drowned in beaver lakes. But that was only the beginning. Beaver meadows dot the forest like mothholes. In the middle of the park there is a 15-mile stretch of almost unbroken beaver meadow, and the situation is getting worse.

This sounds grim, but to the park rangers and to others who understand the role of the beaver in a wilderness area it is merely a case of beavers and human beings wanting to use the same area at the same time. In a wild, unbroken forest beavers are great conservationists. It works this way:

A family of beavers moves into an area and builds a dam. This is done in the same manner that a human family would consult an architect and draw up plans for a home, except that the beavers don't need an architect.

The dam they build appears to be an ungainly structure, a massive tangle of logs, twigs, mud and leaves. But on closer study it proves to be a carefully designed thing which holds back thousands of tons of water yet keeps the lake at a constant level. If the water went through a single spillway floods would cause erosion and break a hole in the structure. To prevent this the beavers arrange the dam so that excess water trickles over the top in small amounts.

A COZY ROOM

Once the water level has been established the beavers build a lodge, a rough mound of logs and mud with an underwater entrance and a cozy room inside above the water level. Nearby they pile up a store of logs and branches as a food supply against the coming winter. This is why a constant water level is important to the beavers. If it rises it will flood them out of their home. If it drops, their food supply will become frozen and snow-covered and they will starve. This is the very thing that makes them vulnerable in the current campaign. If the rangers can prevent the beavers from maintaining that water level the beavers will eventually go away and build, somewhere else.

When a beaver lake is deserted the dam eventually breaks and the water drains off, leaving an open area in the forest where the soil has been enriched by silting. Saplings spring up and grow into trees nourished by the rich soil. The result is that the forest on the site of an old beaver meadow is richer and finer than before. This cycle is all very well in an uninhabited wilderness, but when the area is heavily used by people there is bound to be a conflict as the cycle progresses. This is the basis of the trouble in Gatineau Park.

The estimated total number of descendants of those original 17 beavers is 7,000. Most of these have spread over the surrounding countryside with the result that two years ago the Quebec government declared open season on beavers the year round. In the 52,000 acres of the park owned by the FDC the beaver population was 1,024 when the trapping season ended last December 1. During the season the FDC's rangers trapped 70, but the catch in the entire Gatineau Park area, including those trapped by farmers and others to protect roads and crops, was about 300.

Beavers are trapped in the park only when their operations become an absolute menace. But they can become a menace rather easily, for beaver work is done on an astonishing scale. Ranger Scott can take you to well-engineered beaver dams holding back lakes up to 35 acres in extent. Furthermore, since these engineers of the animal world build their dam to maintain an exact water level, they will leave no log unmoved in order to keep the level. This has led to a strange struggle between man and beast.

When the beavers build a dam in a threatening location the rangers tear a hole in the structure each day. They can't tear down the dam entirely because a flood would result and, besides, the beavers would only build it right back again. Their scheme is to tear down a little more than the beavers can rebuild in one night. Sometimes the two-sided project goes on for several weeks, with the rangers tearing down in the daytime and the beavers building up at night.

For the beavers it is a losing battle. Eventually they give up and move to some other stream. If they build their dam where it will cause no harm they are left alone.

"That's what the rangers want them to do," says Park Superintendent Robert Elwood Edey. "They would much rather drive them away than kill them. We like beavers."

But if the critters keep moving to bad spots they eventually have to be trapped. At present the trapping is done only in the autumn. But more and more sectors are becoming danger spots as more roads and cottages are built for the summer pleasure of Ottawans. As many as 13,500 persons drive through the park on a nice weekend. While tourist numbers are increasing, so are beaver numbers, and so many dams will be built that the rangers won't be able to tear them down. Park officials fear that it may be necessary to trap beavers from spring through autumn.

Abandoned beaver ponds are particularly hazardous. After creating a pond the beavers will use it for five years or so. When the surrounding trees have been cut for food and to repair the dam, and when the pond has become silted, they move away and build a new dam somewhere else. Without the furry repairmen on hand the dam weakens, suddenly breaks and causes a flood which can do heavy damage. In 1957 one of the main roads of the park was washed out in this manner. Last year, east of Ottawa and outside the park, a lumber company's train struck a 50-foot washout and was derailed, injuring 25 lumbermen. It was the biggest piece of beaver mischief of the year.

To illustrate the beaver's engineering skill Conn recalled a case in which the government wanted to create an artificial lake where muskrats could breed. Engineers were sent out to find the best possible site for a dam. Then Conn asked if he could take over. He planted a pair of beavers at the spot. They constructed a dam, saving the government several thousand dollars and, furthermore, the canny beavers built it only seven feet from a bench mark left by the engineers. Conn's comment was, "Seven feet off! Fire the engineers."

Such acts as these endear the Canadian symbol to the people. The Gatineau beavers have become bold and often build their lodges inside boathouses on the lake. Frequently they even go over to Ottawa for a visit. This usually happens during the mating season when beaver couples do their courting in rivers. They swim down the Gatineau River into the Ottawa River, and some have even showed up in the Rideau River in the middle of the city. Last fall a pair climbed out of the Rideau and reached Ottawa's city hall.

Some visitors to Ottawa are aged beavers which have been kicked out of the family. Their teeth have become too bad to enable them to build their own dams, and they live in makeshift homes on lakes and in river banks. Last year one of them picked the steep bank of the Ottawa River right underneath the Parliament buildings. It was chased back into the river, as are most beavers that turn up in the city.

Still more determined was another beaver visitor to Parliament Hill last summer. It was a young one and was apparently lost. It managed to crawl all the way up the slope from the river and was discovered chewing placidly on a twig in the shadow of Queen Victoria's statue, unmindful of the cars whizzing by. It refused to be chased and had to be dragged back to the river by the tail.

Now temperatures have dropped to 31 below in the park and are bound to go lower. The snow is deep and the thin trickles that seeped through the beaver dams last fall have been stilled. The dams are frozen solid, great snow-covered barriers of twigs and logs and ice and frozen mud. Behind them the beaver lakes are merely dead expanses of white. Up the slopes the stumps of trees felled by beavers protrude through the snow. Now and again a deer or a wolf, the latter driven south by the winter, appears at the edge of a lake.

But more often it is a park ranger who comes by but doesn't disturb the beavers snuggling close to each other inside their lodges. The winter truce between the rangers and the beavers is on, but the rangers are making plans for the summer campaign. They examine the positions of the dams, check the amount of water in the lakes and estimate its effect should the dam break. Where the prospect looks ominous they mark the dam for gradual destruction when winter is over.

As a postscript to the struggle between man and his friend it was learned that the Canadian embassy has offered some of the Gatineau beavers to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. When the project is completed the beavers will be installed in the zoo's reconstructed beaver valley. There will be only five or six of them at most, so it will not even make a dent in the Gatineau Park population, but a friendly warning comes from the nation to the north. The zoo people had better make sure those beavers are safely confined or else they may soon be out chewing down cherry trees you know where.

PHOTOENGAGING CULPRIT REPAIRS ONE OF THE MANY DAMS IN THE RECREATION AREA PHOTORANGERS GO TO WORK ON DAM BUILT BY BEAVERS IN REGION USED BY TOURISTS PHOTOWELL-CHEWED TREE shows how beavers do their work in forests of Gatineau Park. PHOTOTAILED BEAVER strikes unwilling pose with Ranger John Scott and his assistant.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
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Double Bogey (+2)