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Leave it to beaver

New Paltz environmentalists celebrate the noble beaver

by Erin Quinn
April 14, 2011 02:41 PM | 0 0 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Wildlife advocate and environmentalist Dorothy Richards developed a 900-acre sanctuary in the Adirondack foothills 65 miles west of Albany which she called “Beaversprite”. 
Courtesy of beaversww.org.
Wildlife advocate and environmentalist Dorothy Richards developed a 900-acre sanctuary in the Adirondack foothills 65 miles west of Albany which she called “Beaversprite”. Courtesy of beaversww.org.
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There’s been Beavergate One and Beavergate Two -- where members of the community showed their outrage over lethal, yet legal, beaver trapping in New Paltz wetlands and ponds -- and so now, only in New Paltz, the Village Environmental Conservation Commission and the SUNY New Paltz Biology Club teamed up to sponsor a celebration of “International Beaver Day” this past Friday at Lecture Center 100.

The theme of the first International Beaver Day was on “coexisting with beavers,” highlighting the environmental benefits of beavers, as well as cost-effective alternatives to trapping these semi-aquatic mammals, who are often referred to as “nature’s engineers.”

To that end, Owen Brown, president of Beavers: Wetlands & Wildlife, and BWW biologist Sharon Brown, were the invited keynote speakers to the event.

“It’s great to be back in New Paltz and among friends,” said Sharon, who along with Owen helped concerned members of the town find alternative methods to lethal trapping.

Those included beaver deceivers and beaver bafflers -- both low-cost methods of installing special fences and corrugated plastic pipes that help prevent road flooding by keeping culverts from being plugged by beaver dams.

They also noted that because beavers love to take their front incisors and gnaw on trees, some beloved pond or riverside trees, fencing can be put up around the base of the tree that eliminates beaver damage.

“It’s great to see Marion Dubois,” said Sharon, referring to the former Town Board member, animal enthusiast, environmentalist and someone that first discovered the “beaver massacre” on New Paltz property, in part where Woodland Pond is today.

The two beaver experts showed a half-hour long video with close-ups of and action footage of beavers and other pond residents that they filmed on their 300-acre sanctuary.

As attendees of the festivals watched the fascinating footage of beavers, muskrats, green herons, wood ducks and other pond creatures, the Brown’s explained that “because beavers create such a rich habitat for many other mammals, fish, amphibians, birds and ducks, American Indians referred to them as the ‘sacred center.’”

Whenever beavers build dams to live in, they raise the water level to protect their lodges, creating a flooded area that become wetlands, or “rainforests of the North,” that support more than half of the endangered species in North America.

Wetlands, the Brown’s pointed out, have disappeared rapidly throughout the past several centuries and as such, have increased floods, water pollution, loss of critical habitat and nature’s natural sponge and water-treatment center.

“Because beaver dams slow the water’s flow, they reduce erosion,” said Owen, “greatly decrease flood damage downstream and raise the water table, which alleviates droughts.”

Beaver dams also filter out up to “90 percent of the silt and biochemical reactions in wetlands work to break down pesticides and other toxins providing everyone with cleaner water … at no cost!”

“Wetlands have been rated by teams of ecologists and economists as the world’s most valuable land-based support system,” Owen said. “[It’s] worth approximately $8,000 per acre and beavers restore them for free.”

The Browns referenced a trend of U.S. waterways becoming increasingly more polluted, upwards of 40 percent, and point to the near extermination of beavers during the 1800s for the fur trade as one of the leading causes of today’s water pollution and severe flooding events.

“Wetlands are enormous sponges that help prevent flash flooding and also decontaminate our water,” Sharon said. “But during the European colonization of the U.S., the soft beaver fur underneath their darker, thicker fur was felted down to be used for the inside of hats and the top fur for the hats themselves.”

Thankfully, that ended when those types of hats went out of style. “Still,” she added, “although beavers are resettling some former habitat, the current population is a fraction of those present before European colonization.”

Busy, busy beavers

Taking a close look at the North American beaver, the Browns point out how the beaver’s shape is streamlined and can thus glide through the water with ease. The animal’s large, flat, scaled tale acts as a rudder and its back legs as the propulsion.

On land, however, “they are awkward and slow and are vulnerable to predators, both human and non-human,” Sharon said.

They took close shots of the beaver’s mouth which has four, large, orange incisors that help them to snap off branches, gnaw on bark and food, and then rows of strong molars that help them grind down hard objects. Their front paws have five-digits, the outside digit simulating a human thumb, which gives them great dexterity. And they have very long claws that allow them to build and excavate, creating a lodge out of sticks and then securing with mud, most like plaster.

They can go underwater for long periods of time, as they have flaps in their mouth, nose, ears and eyes that close while underwater, thus protecting them. They are vegetarians that eat a wide variety of things, including quaking aspen branches and leaves, as well as pussy willows and water lilies and, highly prized to them, the occasional apple or carrot they might find.

The Browns pointed out that beavers mate for life, unless a mate dies, and that they raise kits and nurture and care for them until those kits are two or three years old and go off to find their own mate and territory.

“But sometimes they return and there are lodges with multi-generational beaver families,” Owen said.

They highlighted a pond that -- because of the work the beavers did -- had created wetlands. That habitat was “diverse and shared by endangered birds, frogs, butterflies, ducks and other mammals.” All of those creatures rely on the pond and wetland ecosystem to survive and thrive.

Part of the presentation was a funny clip of Dorothy Richards, renowned as the “Beaver Lady,” because of her four-decade study and enthusiasm for beavers, as well as her decision to bring the beavers inside her home, where she co-existed with dozens of beavers and made a concrete pool and a flap door so they could choose where they wanted to hang out.

“We do not condone bringing beavers into one’s house,” Owen said. “But our organization does encourage and assist in finding humane and cost-effective ways to solve any human-beaver conflict, because it is only to our great advantage to co-exist with beavers, appreciate the great work that they do and to resolve any conflict in a way that does not harm these gentle, hard-working, special creatures.”

The Browns can be reached at www.BeaversWW.org or by calling (518) 568-2077.

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