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Nature’s engineers sometimes furry nuisance for farmers

Beavers building dams causing water to back up and silt to clog ditches and drainage tile in the area

May 5, 2011
By Steve Browne , Marshall Independent

The trade in beaver pelts brought the first settlers to the northern midwestern and northwestern states. Once trapped to near-extinction, beavers have made a strong comeback, which has evoked some mixed feelings.

Naturalists say that after humans, beavers are the species that most alters the natural environment, but though admired for their industriousness they become a nuisance when they work at cross-purposes to the works of man.

When the Lincoln County Board adopted the new Drainage Authority policy at its regular meeting on Tuesday, provision 14 raised the bounty paid for beaver tails from $25 to $50. The board also heard from Cindy Potz, administrator of the Yellow Medicine River Watershed District, about its nuisance beaver program.

"Because of the saturated ground and standing water beavers are reproducing really well," Potz said. "They've had a good winter."

Potz told the board during the past wet year beaver dams were causing significant problems with the Yellow Medicine River watershed area's open ditch drainage system and buried drainage tiles, causing crop losses and taking crop land out of cultivation.

"We've lost crop all over the place," Lincoln County Environmental Administrator Robert Olsen said. "If they're in the ditch system they build in low water which causes water to back up."

Olsen said the standing water prevents tile outlets from draining and causes sedimentation to build up and block the open ditches. The county policy is to first hire trappers to remove the beavers, then hire contractors to demolish the dams, either with explosives or mechanical means whenever possible. The ditch banks and surroundings are then restored and re-seeded.

Potz reported in some sites beavers were taking standing corn stalks for their dams. Olsen said the county pays the cost of clearing ditches on public land, but on private land farmers pay for removal through special assessments.

This does not amount to an all-out war on beavers though.

"We hate to do them much harm because they're fantastic," Potz said. "If only we could hire them to build where we want them."

Potz said beaver dams in the right places serve a useful function by controlling and moderating the flow of rivers.

And because some people think beavers are kind of cute, trapping them can cause some outrage in animal rights circles.

"It's a touchy subject," Potz said. "We make sure not to harm beavers that are not a nuisance."

Potz said the Watershed District is considering ways they might live-trap and relocate beavers.

The problem with beavers, as with many nuisance species is that of the beaver's natural predators - wolves, wolverines, bears, and coyotes - only coyotes have managed to hold on to and actually expand their habitat range. When humans drive the predators away, they must become the predator.

However, the trade in beaver furs has declined to where it no longer encourages trapping during beaver season, Oct. 11- April 30, in southern Minnesota, according to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Area Wildlife Manager Bob Meyer.

"They typically aren't valuable as a fur resource," Meyer said, "so they aren't trapped much during season. Summer and early fall fur isn't worth anything, so you have to pay people to trap."

Meyer said there's more work involved in trapping beaver, because the traps have to be bigger and heavier than for other fur-bearing animals, and care has to be taken to secure them from damage.

For out-of-season beaver trapping and dam demolishing, the county or private landowner must get approval from the local conservation officer, to insure only nuisance beavers are trapped, and they are killed humanely.

"We're only going to use people who know what they're doing," Meyer said. "And it doesn't make sense to demolish the dam before the beaver are trapped, because they'll build it right back up."

Meyer said trappers may sell the pelts after turning in the tail for the bounty. Most sell to companies for export to Russia and China.

"Fashion is what drives sales," Meyer said. "Sometimes short fur is in fashion, sometimes long fur."

Oscar Waller runs the Waller Fur Company about 20 miles north of Marshall.

"The market hasn't been very good the last couple of years," Waller said. "The Chinese haven't mastered tanning beaver pelts as much as they'd like. They've been bigger buyers of muskrat and coyote for coats and jackets. The Russians like raccoons for coats and hats."

Waller said he hasn't bought any beaver pelts lately, but last fall paid $5-$15 per pelt. There is a market for the castor gland, used in the manufacture of perfumes and scents, but it amounts to only $30-$45 per pound dried.

"That's quite a bit of beavers," Waller said. "Mostly it's bought in grams."



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