Can humans and beavers resolve their conflicts?
Coexisting with nature in Rappahannock sometimes produces struggles for county residents. Take, for instance, the sometimes embroiled relationship between the landowner and the local beaver.
Beavers are the largest rodent in North America and are known for being industrious — and destructive. They fell valuable timber and dam ponds, rivers and streams, often flooding crop fields, buildings, roads and other structures. The Virginia Department of Transportation estimated in 2008 that the average cost of beaver-related damage was roughly $29,000 per site.
Beavers live in colonies in the banks of waterways and survive off a diet of leaves, bark and tree roots. Utilizing their large teeth, they chew down trees to create dams, adding mosses and mud to further waterproof their aquatic abodes. The moat created by the dam protects beavers from their would-be predators.
Though they are considered a nuisance, beavers have been the heroes of a major success story in the conservation movement. In the early 20th century, beavers had been hunted and trapped to near extinction in Virginia. They were killed primarily for their fur, which was used to make the stylish hats of yore. When those hats went out of fashion, beavers rebounded.
Although beaver behavior is seemingly destructive, it provides many environmental benefits. “What they’re doing is important for water quality,” says Claire Catlett, Rappahannock Field Representative for the Piedmont Environmental Council. “When they build a dam, they are essentially slowing water down but they’re also spreading water out.”
The redistribution of water allows for the growth of new trees, which in turn provides new food and lumber for the beavers. The new trees act as a natural water purifier, filtering toxins from the water. “Trees play an important part in ecosystems,” Catlett says. “Especially along streams, they filter pollution with their roots.”
Beaver dams also create wetland habitats that are vital to a variety of animals and plant life. In addition to allowing hundreds of plant and animal species to thrive, wetlands offer flood and erosion control and remove pollutants from surface water runoff. Because they slow runoff and protect surface water, dams have also proven to recharge aquifers deep underground.
Bill Fletcher is one Rappahannock landowner who has witnessed the positive influence of beavers returning to his property over the past year. “I’ve had a number of springs come back on the farm,” says Fletcher, who had the idea of implementing a government-funded program to install Beaver Dam Analogues (BDA) in the streams of Virginia farms.
BDAs are man-made beaver dams that are put into place to reap the ecological benefits that a natural beaver dam produces. They can often help to attract beavers who will take over and continue to maintain the BDAs — evidence that human-beaver collaboration to improve water quality and retention is possible.
“It would revolutionize the ecology of the area,” Fletcher says. “And it would allow us to retain more water in the aquifers. It would help every individual farmer and it would also help the Chesapeake Bay and the Rappahannock River.”
Fletcher has been reaching out to various state conservation foundations in hopes of bringing his project to fruition. BDAs have been shown to work successfully in other areas to raise groundwater levels, create healthier downstream ecosystems and even turn some intermittent streams into perennial streams.
Still, sometimes the benefits of beavers aren’t enough to convince landowners to let them stay. But there are many programs designed to help resolve human-wildlife conflicts. The Clifton Institute in Warrenton is a nonprofit organization with a mission of conservation and restoration of natural habitat of plants and animals, and provides one such service. The institute also provides environmental education and performs ecological research in the Piedmont area.
Alison Zak, an education associate for the Clifton Institute, says there are two main categories of human-beaver conflicts. “One is tree chewing,” she says, “and the other is flooding, which is usually when beavers are clogging up a culvert.”
Zak provides outreach for beaver management, which includes onsite assessments of beaver-impacted property with the objective of helping people understand how to minimize damage caused by these furry waterway engineers.
One way to reduce damage to trees is to wrap them with metal wiring at least four feet high, or applying tree-colored paint mixed with sand to the bark. The texture is believed to deter beavers from chewing. Flow devices that can be installed within dams also provide possible solutions to prevent flooding.
With beaver relocation being illegal in Virginia, exasperated property owners sometimes resort to killing beavers, believing it to be the simplest way to rid their land of the pests. Although this method is legal, Zak says it is generally ineffective.
“If the landowner has a nice spot, killing one pair of beavers is just creating an opportunity for a new pair looking for habitat,” she explains. “There’s almost always a way to address a problem without killing the beavers.”