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No Chainsaw Needed

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, Kansas

Like most people given permission to trespass on private property for the purpose of enjoying a few hours of outdoor recreation, I feel obligated to report to the landowner anything I perceive to be a problem, or potential problem. Sometimes it's not a problem I report but something I notice that the landowner might like knowing about for personal entertainment value.

The latter was the case October 30th. I was in my canoe, working the southwest shore of a Watershed District pond. Catching some fish, too. Every forty or fifty casts I would pull my anchors off the bottom, ease forward twenty yards, re-anchor and go at it anew. Facing the shoreline, I was intent on putting my casts close to the weed edge then watching my leader and floating line carefully for that telltale twitch indicating a pickup.

Raising my view a few degrees upward from the weed edge, it took a few seconds before it sank in that I was looking at something I couldn't remember seeing in twenty-some visits here: a beaver-felled, bark-stripped tree.

To most people the state of Kansas sounds like the last place in America where beavers would choose to live. Prairie state, pool table-flat terrain, wheat and corn fields everywhere, etc., etc.

Spare me, please: Kansas is practically knee-deep in beavers. During the canoe trips that I do on the Delaware, Wakarusa, Marias des Cygnes, Arkansas and Kansas rivers I'm floating at close range past so many chewed trees, so many beaver den entrance holes dug into streambanks that I'm almost numb to the surprise factor I felt thirty years ago when first noticing this unmistakable evidence. Doubtless beavers have been living here in good numbers long before I became aware. During a pheasant hunt in the late 1970s I was stunned to find a string of beaver dams thrown across a tiny unnamed tributary of Spring Creek northwest of Beattie – an upland creek so far removed from a river of any real size that from the farm where I was bird hunting you'd have to hike three days and nights to find any water wide enough to turn a canoe around in.

So, taking only casual notice of this chewed-down tree, I stopped casting and pulled my camera out of my fanny pack. With the afternoon sun backlighting the scene this spot was decently photogenic. I thought the landowner might enjoy finding a "nature in your backyard" attached photo in tomorrow's email inbox?

Before leaving for home, I mention in passing that I'd found beaver sign at the pond. No big deal, it's only one beaver-chewed tree; I've seen thousands of 'em. To my surprise, the landowner's eyes narrowed into that Clint Eastwood squint and I heard, "Say WHAT? There's never been beavers in that pond, ever!"

And thus, for the landowner, began what has now become a two-month long combination panic attack/Wild Kingdom episode complete with buttered popcorn devoured in anticipation of nature's next little drama.

I did not grasp the logic behind the landowner's concern. Indeed, the concern seemed without merit, even alarmist. This is a large Watershed District pond, four acres in surface area. The dam is massive both in the width of its footing and its height and length. Moreover, the face of the dam is gently sloped, which I knew gave beavers no convenient vertical "wall" into which they could – or would even want to – excavate bank dens. The way I saw things, having beavers live in the pond couldn't threaten the dam and this was the only really important consideration.

Well, not the only consideration. As the landowner began stressing out, Yours Truly was becoming equally excited – except I was imagining much happier scenarios. Filling my head now were the benefits soon to be delivered to me if this pond began supporting a permanent beaver population. Medium and large-size trees growing along the shore would get dropped into the water on a regular basis, depositing new tree trunks and main beam limbs that would reach out into the pond providing excellent cover and critical habitat for plankton, aquatic insects, minnows and gamefish. Tree limbs I could largely avoid snagging by simply anchoring my canoe offshore… other fishermen who come here (bank casters all) would be helpless to avoid repeatedly snagging and breaking off when probing those same limb tangles.

But the landowner was adamant; something had to be done to remove the beaver (or beavers). This landowner is concerned about maintaining the quality of the pond, which anyone who owns a pond ought to be anyway. Plus, this is a Watershed District pond intended for floodwater retention and the landowner respects and follows the government-imposed maintenance rules ultimately intended to protect the good neighbors who live and own property "down-shed".

Judging the dam to not be in jeopardy, in the days that followed I spent many hours trading emails with the landowner, during which time I indirectly argued my canoe fisherman's desire that the beavers be left to their own devices. They've found your pond now, I wrote. If you trap them out or shoot them out you're only postponing the inevitable; more recruits from the local population will soon show up to replace the fallen. So leave them alone, let their numbers self-regulate. The shoreline lumberjack work they'll do will not be anything you can't live with. Let the beavers do their thing. If you're still worried, then help some local guy earn a few extra dollars: call Kansas Wildlife and Parks and ask for a trapper referral.

After resting my case, I was bored one afternoon and did a "beaver damage to pond dams" Google search on my computer. Up popped extensive information on the subject published by – are you sitting down? – Kansas State University! Hey, when a nearly exclusive agriculture/horticulture/livestock-based school like K-State generates this much information on beaver damage you KNOW the furry flat-tailed critters are not only here, they're dropping that crabapple tree in your back yard right now.

So I began reading through this multi-category K-State link. Yes, yes; I agree completely. Uh huh, those rascals sure enough will do that. Hmmm…that's interesting. Oh, really? Cool! And then my eyes scanned a sentence that made me back up and read it twice more, and if I was someone suffering a heart condition I'd have tucked two nitroglycerin capsules under my tongue then reached for the oxygen mask.

I will paraphrase: "Beavers instinctively explore the sound of running water. Once the source is found they try to prevent that water from escaping. This behavior leads them to attempt plugging the outlet tubes of farm ponds with an impenetrable mass of woven sticks and mud."

Just last summer a succession of narrow-width heavy rain storms trained through northeast Kansas and in one 24-hour period the watershed area that this pond controls got hit by eighteen inches of rainfall. Repeat: eighteen inches. The landowner told me later that for the first time since the pond was built water flowed uncontrolled around the south end of the dam, over the emergency spillway. And that happened with the dam's drain tube unobstructed, allowing water discharge at maximum design volume.

If beavers were to quietly plug that drain tube and the landowner didn't know they'd done it, and another eighteen inches of rain hits this drainage section and surges into the pond the water level could rise so swiftly that overtopping of the dam could occur, causing rapid and severe erosion leading to the dam's catastrophic failure. That failure could send a wall of water down-valley so deep and fast it drowns the landowner and nearby residents, any passing roadway motorists plus livestock penned downstream from the dam.

Aside from the Great Flood of 1993 and the 1952 Flood (that one forced my family to evacuate our farm north of Reading) the third worst flood I've personally witnessed in my lifetime happened here in November of 1973. Floods will hit Kansas at some pretty odd times of the year, times you wouldn't normally expect.

As fast as my fingers could move over the keyboard I emailed the landowner, sending the link address to this K-State beaver damage information along with a personal suggestion (again paraphrased): "Recommend you authorize and commence beaver trapping and/or shooting immediately. Need shooter, call me. Suggest mounting telescopic sight on your rifle for improved distance accuracy; fire only from elevated positions to prevent ricochet off water."

Or words to that effect: I was pretty excited at the time. Not a panic attack exactly, but I was definitely within binocular range and that was as close as I wanted to get while 2008's fall weather was still behaving reasonably nice.

Thanks to K-State's information, my opinion had shifted onto the same sheet of music as the landowner's initial intuitive opinion. With no time for trying alternatives, in my mind it had now come down to a clear choice between: A) Helping protect this big pond dam that has given me so much fishing enjoyment, or; B) Allowing beavers a chance to jam a cork in this pond's drain tube, thereby flirting with havoc.

Sorry, Bucky. You lose.

Just days before trapping operations began the landowner inspected the pond and observed a startling increase in shoreline chew-downs. This resulted in lots of small limbs marooned in the drain tube's immediate vicinity, transported there by surface movement similar to the scupper action at swimming pools? Ready-made drain tube plug material had been delivered to the "work site" with no extra effort needed by the beavers. There was no option now but to trap.

The experienced trapper who was given permission to work the pond quickly found one well-concealed beaver den hole dug into the bank at a spot back in one of the pond arms. (I'd earlier carefully inspected the pond's entire perimeter myself by canoe and had missed this den opening.) He soon bagged one beaver, employing a quick-kill Conibear body gripper trap. He has since found spoor indicating a second beaver resides in the pond, and is attempting to trap it out.

Up to the reader, but next visit you might consider checking for beaver sign in the ponds you have permission to fish? Bucky stays on the move, exploring the environment. Bucky works while we sleep. You might check those ponds every trip, actually.

In the animal's defense – and here I express my gratitude to Kansas State University for including extensive information on control alternatives – trapping or shooting is not always necessary. The link describes a number of clever devices that physically modify existing pond dam drain tubes to prevent beaver plugging. If cost-effective to the landowner, installing one of these devices lets beavers live in the pond without threatening its structural integrity. Great news for landowners who wish to allow or provide living space for these creatures then enjoy watching their amazing, fascinating activities.

Neither the owner of this Watershed District pond nor I bear a personal grudge against beavers. Speaking for myself – member of a recreation group that needs and exploits the dams beavers build in trout country – I'd be the last person to make a sweeping moral judgment condemning the beaver for its existence and instinctive behavior. If that ever becomes my attitude would someone please remind me to scowl at myself in a mirror first, in view the ghastly destruction our "more highly evolved" human species keeps inflicting on this planet? Destruction that by simply being alive I directly and indirectly contribute to on a daily basis.

It will, in fact, come as no shock to me if during my next visit the landowner tells me that some type of drain tube modification is scheduled as part of the farm's operational outline for next year. This landowner loves seeing wildlife of all kinds living on and visiting the property so long as a mutually beneficial give and take is maintained. ~ Joe

About Joe:

From Douglas County, Kansas, Joe is a former municipal and federal police officer, now retired. In addition to fishing, he hunts upland birds and waterfowl, and for the last 15 years has pursued the sport of solo canoeing. On the nearby Kansas River he has now logged nearly 5,000 river miles while doing some 400 wilderness style canoe camping trips. A musician/singer/songwriter as well, Joe recently retired from the U.S. General Services Adminstration.

Joe at one time was a freelance photojournalist who wrote the Sunday Outdoors column for his city newspaper. Outdoor sports, writing and music have never earned him any money, but remain priceless activities essential to surviving the former 'day job.'

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