Doing my part to assist Alaska's beaver population

John Schandelmeier

There are two times during the year when beaver come to my attention -- early spring and late fall. Spring is the time when they are the most vulnerable to predators and in the fall they are susceptible to the inconsistencies of nature.

Last spring, while driving between Paxson and Maclaren on the Denali Highway, we came upon a medium-size beaver in the middle of the road near the top of the Maclaren Summit. The snow berms were at least four feet high on the sides of the road and there was no water for miles. What in the world was a beaver doing way up there?

Spring is the time of year when young beaver, usually 2-year-olds, leave the family house to make their way in the world. Beaver lodges are home to the family group. In the Interior of Alaska, this group usually consists of six to eight individuals. There are the breeding adults, their young from the previous year and the new young. The spring kits are born in early May after a gestation period of about three and a half months. The house gets crowded with the new additions, so off go the teenagers to make their own way in the world.

The beaver we met on the Maclaren Summit was a wandering juvenile, looking for water. We knew his chances of survival were poor. Every large predator eats them --wolves, wolverine, lynx and bear. Even a medium size fox can handle a young beaver.

There was only one thing to do if he was to have a chance at survival -- take him to water. I threw my coat over him and he obligingly put his head in a sleeve. With him thus immobilized, I zipped the coat, picked him up and put him in the Subaru. That seemed like a good way to transport him down to the Maclaren River and safety.

Soon he was loose in the front seat alongside me, snapping his teeth. Since they cut down big trees with those things, I hit the brakes and left the car to him. After numerous failed attempts, I managed to block him in the back seat and haul him down the mountain to the river. When I opened the car door, he hopped out, still snapping ungratefully, and slipped into the water off to destinations unknown. That beaver survived to live another day.

However, I'm sure that spring mortality is high among these young travelers. Beaver can live to 20 in captivity and to 12 or so in the wild. The average age in the woods is likely closer to 5 or 6.

Safety for a beaver lies in their home pond. Water is their friend. They can stay submerged for 15 minutes. Their house entrance is underwater and the house itself is impenetrable. Or so it seems.

The very water that is the beavers' first defense is also their greatest enemy. The floods of this past week have likely doomed more beaver than all of the summer predation combined.

Not all beaver live in ponds behind their dams or in lakes. Many of them live along river systems. These beaver dig their house chambers in the bank and build no house. The winter food cache is anchored along the river bank just below the house. The flooding of the past week has washed away the feed piles and in many places the high water has washed out the bank dens.

It is unlikely that very many of these populations will have the time to rebuild their food supplies before freeze-up. The specter of spring starvation for these animals is very real. Some will come out from under the ice early, long before the spring break-up, searching for food. They are extremely vulnerable predation in the snow and many will not survive.

Trapping can help. Conscientious beaver trappers can take a couple of animals from each house, leaving more food for those that are left. The colony then has a much better chance at survival.

Beaver have long been one of the most important fur sources in North America. Indeed, much of the early colonization of the northwestern U.S. was due to the popularity of beaver hats and the subsequent trapping efforts.

We are told the beaver were wiped out in much of the northwest by the mountain men. However, if we really take a look at facts and figures, that premise is open to conjecture. During the beaver trapping heyday, fewer than a quarter of the pelts taken each season were exported. Since the 1950s the number has regularly been 2 1/2 times that number. The beaver population in North America presently tops 12 million!

Even though the beaver population is stable or increasing, it still disturbs me to see these likable rodents come to traumatic harm. I will continue to do my tiny part to ease the transition a few animals through the seasons, realizing, of course, that in the scheme of nature, the only benefit will be to my personal satisfaction.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Paxson. He is a commercial fisherman and a two-time Yukon Quest champion.

John Schandelmeier