Beaver Town, Story and Photos By Stacy Fisher –
Especially prized for being one of the warmest furs of any animal in North America, as well as for its astounding durability, the fur trade killed off 40 to 60 million beavers over the past two hundred years, suffering a sharp decline in their numbers. Beaver fur is also valued for it waterproof features because of oil produced in castor glands near the base of the tail. The beaver routinely combs this oil in its fur using a specialized split toenail, called a grooming claw. Consumers used the beaver not only for its pelt to make luxurious garments, felt hats and other items, but also for its meat, especially the liver and feet.— It has been a delicacy and an important source of protein and fat for indigenous people for centuries. Demand for beaver was such that the creature had largely disappeared in Europe and European Russia through exploitation. Unregulated trapping for their popular pelts during the 19th Century had decimated populations, threatening the America beaver with extinction. Today, a trapping license is required in order to trap and harvest a beaver. Beaver populations have rebounded nationally to an estimated 10 to 15 million individuals, with several hundred thousand repopulating central California east including the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain creeks and streams. Beavers are another of the rare mammal species who mate for life, and live up to 23 years. A typical animal can weigh between 30 to 70 pounds depending on gender, and grow up to three feet long as an adult. The female is larger than the male of the same age. Both male and female beavers reach sexual maturity in 2-3 years, with females giving birth to a single litter per year consisting of one to four offspring called kits, usually between April and July. The female takes about 128 days for gestation. Beavers move slow on land but can swim up to five mph, staying underwater for up to 15 minutes without coming to the surface. A set of transparent eyelids enables them to see clearly while submerged. Beaver homes, called lodges, are domelike constructions built from branches and mud. They are positioned in open water for protection from predators and have underwater entrances. Their well-insulated lodges typically contain two dens; one for drying off after entering the lodge underwater, and a second, dryer den where the family lives, socializes and feeds. Even though they have big front teeth, beavers are herbivores and only eat a few different kinds of vegetation, including aspen, poplar, birch, maple, cottonwood, cherry, willow, and alder. Beavers also eat small twigs, and store small sections of water lilies, pondweed and leaves stored underwater near their lodge to eat later. Predators like bears, wolves, wolverines, mountain lions, lynx, coyotes, and eagles like to eat young beavers whenever they can catch them above ground where they are most vulnerable. Beavers mostly sleep during the day and are awake and active at night. But they are sometimes seen during the day too. The cold doesn’t phase beavers, and they remain energetic throughout winter even when their ponds are covered with a layer of ice and snow. Beavers have poor sight but a strong sense of smell and good hearing. They slap their broad tails on the water surface as an alarm to alert the colony when they sense danger. Although beavers are not by nature aggressive creatures, if they feel directly threatened they can use their sharp teeth and powerful jaws to take off fingers or chunks of flesh. Their tails can also smack ankles and shins with serious force. In the North State region of the Sierra-Nevada as well as in other areas of California, any stream, creek or tributary is potential beaver country. Carefully crafted dams in creeks and streams make beavers — among the largest rodents on earth — a keystone species in maintaining habitats that are relied on by many other species. They are critical in creating healthy wetlands, which is inhabited by insects, and in turn attracts bird life. In addition, beavers create beneficial effects on biodiversity for fish and other species in mountain waterways. By building their dams, ecosystems can expand and provide more favorable areas for many animals.