Everyone is familiar with beavers. Some recognize them as industrious dam builders, others see them as nuisances that block culverts and cut down valuable trees. No matter how one feels about this large rodent, they must be granted the distinction of being one of our most valuable species of wildlife.
Mountain men explored the West in part by pursuing valuable beaver pelts. The fashionable sheared beaver-top hats passed from the scene with the advent of the felt hat. Beaver soon lost its value as the driving force in the North American fur market. The market for beaver pelts has surged and waned since, but the animal itself has retained significance in folklore and in our modern lives.
“Busy as a beaver” is still a catchphrase. The sight of a massive beaver dam inspires interest and awe. Beaver dams can cause damaging floods in urban areas. However, in the woods they provide valuable habitat for many species of birds and other mammals.
Beaver build ponds for several reasons. The overriding purpose for ponds in Alaska is to provide a safe, stable location for a winter abode. A pond must be created that is deep enough to provide adequate water for a house to have entries that will not freeze shut. Also, since beaver must store large caches of food to survive the winter, this food cache must remain in the water, not frozen in ice. Fall food stores will look like a pile of brush in the water anchored next to the conical beaver lodge. The vast portion of the feed pile will be underwater, out of view.
Stateside, where winters are relatively short, food storage for beavers is not quite the ordeal as it is for their Alaska counterparts. In many parts of the state, ponds will be ice-covered from late September through mid-May. Nine months of life under the ice requires a terrific amount of food. Beaver put on fat reserves during the summer months to help prepare for the lean times to come.
The type of feed generally depends on the location. Cottonwood, poplar and willow are the preferred foods. The Denali Highway lodges have a preponderance of willow. Occasionally there will be poplar, should they be available. A few ponds will have some dwarf birch in the feed pile. One pond I used to trap relied entirely on lily pad stems; their house was built completely with lilies and mud.
In many areas, especially in Alaska, trappers benefit winter survival by taking one or two adult animals from the lodge, thus providing more available feed for the remaining animals. Otherwise the entire group may starve during the tough winter months.
Location and habitat determine the size of an overwintering beaver family. While there may be a dozen or so residents in easy climes, the Denali country usually has a half-dozen members. A typical lodge will have a couple breeding adults, young from the previous year, and the two spring kits. Predation may take a beaver or two, but a wintering family usually consists of no less than four individuals.
Some houses are bachelor houses. These are composed of adult males that lost their mate or have not yet mated. These ponds may have three to five beaver overwintering. No matter how the population of a pond is structured results are similar. The beaver pond is an oasis of activity in the outlands.
Ponds are formed in what otherwise may be just a wandering trickle through the willows. Ponds provide for bountiful insect life. Water bugs, striders and, of course, mosquitoes provide excellent food sources for fish and birds. Every fisherman knows the largest grayling reside in beaver ponds. Duck hunters look for teal, widgeon and pintails that feed on small invertebrates and vegetation in the shallows. Otter and mink also come to hunt. Moose feed on pond weeds and the constantly renewing willow growth.
The beaver pond may be the only safe haven in areas hit hard by wildfires. A look from the air may show the only stretch green for many miles is a well-maintained stream choked with beaver dams.
Beaver can also be an important food source. Past generations of Indigenous people found them easy to catch. A large male may weigh 60 pounds or more. Thirty pounds of rich meat, high in calories, is an extremely valuable addition to a winter diet.
Beaver is a dark meat with a distinct flavor not unlike bison or elk. Beaver taken during the winter months are best with the fat removed — at least for the western palate.
The next time you see a beaver damming up a roadside culvert or cutting your favorite poplar at the weekend cabin, stop and think before damning him for his seemingly destructive industry. The animal who is as busy as a beaver is just an overflow from one of our most important resources hidden deeper in the woods.