News & Features » Miscellany

Virginia's booming beaver population faces statewide slaughter.

The Beaver Trap


As Richmond's doomed Bucky the beaver discovered, Virginia's beavers just can't win for losing. By 1911, the furry creatures had been hunted and trapped into near-extinction. Then, 30 years later, they were restored through a celebrated state program that released imported beavers into Virginia's wilds. The largest rodent native to North America, the beaver can reach 60 pounds and is a conspicuous addition to any pond, wetland or backyard stream. But now it seems they could become victims of their own success. Virginia's beaver populations have grown so strong and so pervasive that the tree-gnawing mammals are causing what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls "epidemic" destruction of private property, crops and public roads. The USDA is recommending a "beaver damage management plan" for Virginia, modeled after one in North Carolina, where localities, state agencies and landowners work together and share costs to contain the toothy engineers. Meanwhile, the Virginia Department of Transportation, citing increasing cases of flooded highways, failing shoulders and potential road hazards, has hired the USDA's Wildlife Services to kill and control as many as 2,000 nuisance beavers next year, many in eastern Virginia. The first-ever state contract, approved in September, is worth as much as $272,000, or about $135 per beaver. It can be renewed annually if problems persist. "Citizens don't want to see the wholesale killing of animals, and we agree with that," says Jeff Southard, VDOT's environmental coordinator. "But we have to keep the roadways safe. That's paramount to us." Beavers also can unravel environmental restoration work. VDOT is required to replace wetlands ruined during road construction. On several occasions, Southard says, beavers have turned man-made replacement wetlands into deep-water ponds—irking regulators, who demanded that the shallower wetlands be restored. The highway department does not track beaver-related incidents or damage. But Southard says recent discussions with district engineers across the state proved one thing: VDOT is spending too much time and money trying to fight this resourceful, resilient critter, and it needs help. Until now, highway workers have removed dams themselves or hired local trappers and animal-control companies. But the beavers have continued to spread. "This is not a new problem, but has become widespread enough that we needed assistance," says Erin Gregg, a department spokeswoman. Animal-rights groups have objected to the contract on several fronts. They challenge as scientifically fuzzy the premise that Virginia is being overrun by beavers. And they argue that, in any case, Virginia should not be so quick to kill the animals with guns and body traps. Instead, the state should first invest in flood-control devices and other nonlethal equipment, they say. Groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Fund for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States have met privately with state transportation executives and hope to train highway workers on cruelty-free alternatives. They have accepted an invitation to deliver a package of animal-protective proposals to VDOT by Dec. 1, says one activist involved in the talks. "We don't suggest that our methods work 100 percent of the time," says Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife biologist for PETA, the international animal-rights group based in Norfolk. "But neither does removing an animal by killing it. There'll just be another one to take its place." Virginia is by no means alone in its beaver conundrum. The North American population has boomed in the past few decades to between 6 million and 20 million animals, most of them in the Northeast and Midwest. By comparison, in the early 1900s, their numbers had dwindled to about 100,000 as many traditional habitats were wiped out, according to the Center for Watershed Protection. In Virginia, the trend is identical: Zero beavers were counted in 1911 but about 100,000 were counted this year, says Randy Farrar, a beaver expert and biologist with the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Farrar says the number of beavers statewide is expanding by about 6 percent a year — the same growth pattern seen during the 1600s, before colonists arrived and started trapping the animals for their warm, feltlike fur. "You can't go anywhere in Virginia these days … and not see beaver," Farrar says in a recent interview. "They're everywhere that streams flow and depths are right. And in Virginia, that's statewide." A key factor in their ballooning presence is that, like most states, Virginia has relied on fur trapping to control populations. While hunting has worked for centuries, it simply does not right now, Farrar says. Historically, a typical harvest year would net about 5,000 pelts. That number peaked in 1980, with 11,154 pelts. Each sold for an especially high average price of more than $30, according to state and federal statistics. But those days are gone. A typical pelt last year sold for $8. And with less money to be made, fewer trappers are buying licenses — 1,080 last year compared with about 5,000 in 1979-'80, according to state figures. Another factor is the beaver itself. For beavers are environmental stewards and ecological troublemakers, welcome visitors and royal pains. On the upside, beavers create wetlands by damming waterways, decrease soil erosion and runoff, and increase habitat for some fish, amphibians and reptiles. Farrar says they have helped revive otter and mink stocks in Virginia by constructing model ecosystems for the two riverfront species. At the same time, beavers can destroy habitat for other creatures, hurt other types of fish, ruin certain trees, decrease biodiversity, increase algae growth in shallow waters and, of course, encourage flooding. Across North America, beaver damage to property and habitat is estimated at $100 million a year, according to several studies. The likelihood of unhappy interaction between beaver and human has increased in recent years as new homes and roads have sprung up in woodlands and swamps, the beaver's favored habitats. The furry animals show little fear of humans and have adapted easily to their two-legged suburban neighbors. Humans, however, are less tolerant. State permits that allow Virginia landowners to trap and kill nuisance beavers out of season have increased for four years in a row—from 154 in 1996 to 369 last year, according to the Game and Inland Fisheries Department, which issues the permits. In Virginia, complaints of beavers rank fourth among wildlife problems, according to Dage Blixt, district supervisor for the USDA's Wildlife Services division. Canada geese rank first, followed by vultures and coyotes, Blixt says. Complaints to USDA's offices have increased each year since 1992, except last year, Blixt says, when they fell from 98 calls to 70. The USDA's proposed damage-management plan would make it easier for aggrieved landowners and localities to get help, laying out rules and procedures needed to call federal wildlife experts out into the field. Then there is the issue of trapping. Animal groups are opposed to body traps, or Conibear traps, saying they are cruel and inhumane. Such a snare is usually set underwater and snatches a beaver that swims through it. The animal can drown, usually after a 20-minute struggle, according to PETA. But in Massachusetts, where state voters approved a "Ban Cruel Traps" initiative in 1996, beaver populations have increased, from about 18,000 to almost 55,000, according to an article last year in Audubon magazine. Similar ballot initiatives have passed in five other states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, the report says. Trapping groups have pledged to challenge the restrictions. But in Virginia this year, voters went the other way, endorsing a state constitutional amendment protecting the right to fish and hunt. "We understand beavers are only doing their thing," VDOT's Southard says. "What most people don't understand, though, is having to drive through hazardous conditions when beavers flood a roadway or fall trees across

Add a comment