Beavers for Indiana

Every River where the current was moderate and sufficiently deep, the banks at the water edge were occupied by their houses. To every small Lake, and all the Ponds they builded Dams, and enlarged and deepened them to the height of the dams. Even to the grounds occasionally overflowed, by heavy rains, they also made dams, and made them permanent Ponds, and as they heightened the dams [they] increased the extent and added to the depth of the water; Thus all the low lands were in possession of the Beaver, and all the hollows of the higher grounds. Small Streams were damned across and Ponds formed; the dry land with the dominions of Man contracted, every where he was hemmed in by water without the power of preventing it: he could not diminish the numbers half so fast as they multiplied, and their houses were proof against his pointed stake, and his arrows could seldom pierce their skins.

— David Thompson and Richard Glover. David Thompson’s Narrative, 1784-1812. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1962. p. 198-199 | http://www.archive.org/details/davidthompsonsna00thom

Indiana needs more beavers. In an earlier time (the 1600s), I suspect the Indianapolis area had plenty of beavers. The terrain and the many tributaries to the White River are well-suited to beaver life. Like most states, however, beavers were extirpated from Indiana in the mid-nineteenth century to feed the market for fur and perfume. According to the Indiana DNR, a breeding pair was released in the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in 1935.

A few, potential descendants of this beaver pair from Wisconsin now live in the EcoLab, a 55-acre wetland on the Marian University campus. E. and I were there, recently, for a cloudy, wet walk. It was a good day to be outside; my, now cancer-prone, skin appreciated the cloud cover and I appreciated the mostly empty trails. In addition to the ruins of Jens Jensen’s landscape design, the beaver lodges are probably the most popular feature of the Lab. I was pleased to discover that a sign explaining beaver lodges failed to follow a colony to its latest location, but instead pointed to a shrinking mound in a dry pond. The lodge was sprouting a fair sized shrub, so it has been vacant for at least a couple of years. Occupied lodges are visible elsewhere in the Lab, but not near the signage.

Arriving in the late morning, we did not, however, see any beavers. In fact, I have seen only one non-captive beaver in my lifetime. Last fall I was fishing roughly a mile north of the the Crooked Creek tributary. At day break I was knee deep in the water and casting in the mist. I saw the beaver for at least 30 seconds before it saw me. Swimming my direction (it seemed huge), it paused gave me a quick look and dove with a very loud slap of its broad tail. If any other beavers were within a quarter mile, they were fairly warned. I have spent a lot of time fishing on the river’s east bank, but I have yet to spot a lodge in the area, so I’ll guess that this beaver a) was house hunting, or b) has a lodge somewhere on the west bank.

With a life mostly “lived” outside and preferably running on trails or fishing in silence, I have spotted my first beaver after moving to the nation’s fourteenth largest city. Why are they here? And now? Perhaps the urban beaver benefits from access to public land. Farmers and suburbanites may be less beaver-friendly. Perhaps, while municipalities pause to deliberate, the animals keep munching, dam building, and girdling trees. In other words, while people argue, urban beavers are allowed to fell fresh planted saplings … at least, until someone wraps them in four feet of heavy chicken wire.

Now that I have seen one beaver, a few lodges, a couple of dams, and plenty of bank-side tree damage, I want to see beavers everywhere. There’s a heap of bark chips in the elementary school parking lot … beaver lodge. There’s a flooded alley behind the Walgreens … beaver pond. The neighbor’s midsized basswood is dying … again, in another time, it would have been the work of a beaver.

In 1955 Indiana counted 1,695 beavers, in 1998 Ohio counted 25,000, in 2008 Wisconsin counted 68,800. How many beavers are in Indiana? I’m guessing, probably more than 20,000, but less than 60,000.  In other words, not enough. When all the beavers return, Indiana’s portion of the estimated 100-400 million beavers in this country prior to the arrival of the fur trade, they will be a nuisance. Restoration will look like destruction. We will do battle and if we call a truce, life will be different. Then, if I’m a beaver’s neighbor, I’ll be a nuisance too.

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