Current beaver range and historical commercial trapping areas (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic, sources: Historical Atlas of Canada, Wild Furbearer Management and Conservation in North America)
At the turn of the 19th century, many people thought Canada’s national animal was a goner — a doomed species that had passed the point of no return. One notable pessimist was Horace T. Martin, a Canadian Fellow of the Zoological Society of London and author of Castorologia or the History and Traditions of the Canadian Beaver. “As to the ultimate destruction of the beaver, no possible question can exist,” declared Martin in 1892, noting that “the evidences of approaching extermination can be seen only too plainly in the miles of territory exhibiting the decayed stump, the broken dam and deserted lodge.”
One hundred and twenty years later, on a warm June evening, I sit on the shore of a massive beaver pond in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, watching water bugs etch ephemeral lines on the glassy surface. I chose a spot near the long, curved dike that contains the pond at this end. From this vantage, the structure is unremarkable. Viewed from downstream, as I would do later, it stands an impressive two metres high, a thick, angled rampart of sticks, mud and sprouting greenery.
Within 10 minutes of my arrival, one of the dam builders appears. At first, it looks like a plank of waterlogged wood, but as it nears, I start to make out details: knobby ears, black-bead eyes, water-slicked mahogany fur. When it gets close enough that I can see its nostrils flaring, I expect a startled dive. Instead, it approaches to within a metre of the shore and cruises back and forth in front of me for several minutes.
Peering down into the tea-coloured water, I observe the ruddering action of its tail and the slow, alternating kicks of its webbed hind feet. Its small front paws remain tucked close against its chest. The beaver watches me intently and intermittently emits a low rumble that sounds like a cross between a growl and a purr. Finally, it swims over to the dam, clambers out of the water and stands as if posing for the Canadian nickel, then belly-flops back into the pond and paddles away. How pleased Horace T. Martin would have been to know his prognosis was wrong.
The beaver revival is, indeed, one of the continent’s great conservation success stories; beavers are thriving throughout their traditional territory in North America. But as beavers continue to multiply, not everyone is cheering them on. Each year, the average adult beaver cuts approximately one metric tonne of wood — about 215 trees — for food and building materials. Not only do we complain when they compete with us for timber or meddle with the scenery, we also object when their dams flood highways, farm fields and waterfront real estate. In 2010, one even killed a husky in a suburban park in Red Deer, Alta.
Yet a growing body of research suggests that we need more beavers not fewer, that beavers perform a vital service to the riparian world that will be particularly needed in the drought years ahead. It may be an argument Canadians don’t want to hear.
Before the European invasion of North America began in the late 1400s, beavers inhabited almost all of what we now call Canada and the United States, plus a sliver of northern Mexico. Except for the driest western deserts and the alligator-patrolled swamps of the Florida peninsula, they ranged from coast to coast and from just south of the Rio Grande to the Arctic treeline, as well as north along the Mackenzie and Coppermine rivers to the Arctic Ocean.
Pre-contact beaver-population estimates vary widely, from a conservative 60 million to an extravagant 400 million. In the words of explorer and cartographer David Thompson, the entire northern half of the continent was originally “in the possession of two distinct races of Beings, Man and the Beaver.” Thompson’s authority to make such statements came from surveying and mapping one-sixth of North America and talking with countless aboriginal elders who had known of the beaver’s glory days.
Cherie Westbrook, an associate professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s department of geography and planning, corroborates Thompson’s anecdotal evidence and brings an ecohydrologist’s perspective to the discussion. According to Westbrook, 85 percent of all watercourses in the United States — and a comparable, though unquantified, percentage in Canada — are headwater streams and, therefore, small enough to be dammed by beavers. This continent-wide network of fine blue lines represents a wealth of potential beaver habitat. “We’re talking about beaver in nearly every headwater stream across North America prior to European colonization,” says Westbrook. It was a bonanza that would set off North America’s first natural resource stampede.
At first, the fur trade was merely a sideline for the cod fishermen who sailed back and forth across the Atlantic in the late 1400s and early 1500s. But their discovery of Castor canadensis could not have come at a better time for the Old World, where an insatiable demand for hats made from the beaver’s dense under-fur was fast depleting the supply of materials. By the mid-1500s, the once common Eurasian beaver, C. fiber, existed only in a few isolated corners of Scandinavia, Siberia and the Far East, and the rush for North America’s “brown gold” was on.
French, English and Dutch traders shipped tens of thousands of beaver pelts annually in the early decades of the fur trade. Then they pushed inland and intensified their efforts. Throughout the 1700s, annual exports of beaver pelts rarely dipped below 100,000. Some years, they may have topped 300,000. But the real problem wasn’t the body count. It was the fur trade’s relentless, colony-obliterating progress across the continent, which wiped the species right off the map even as the cartographers were drawing it. Sheer numbers were no match for the traders’ technology and greed.
The first concerted attempt to arrest the beaver’s precipitous decline was led by George Simpson, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Between 1821 and 1850, he imposed a series of trapping moratoriums and quotas on the company’s western interior districts and prohibited agents at those posts from buying the skins of beaver cubs and summer-killed adults, whose fur was of little commercial value. These conservation measures were moderately successful but too geographically limited to make a difference. South of the border, independent American trappers were scooping up beaver pelts — “hairy banknotes” in the lingo of the mountain men — as fast as they could find them. Counter to his own conservation efforts, Simpson responded by aggressively expanding his operations west of the Rockies, deliberately eliminating beavers from parts of Oregon and Washington before rivals could get there.
By the early 1900s, there was scarcely a beaver to be found south of the forty-ninth parallel and throughout much of Canada. Records for Rupert House, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s oldest trading post, reveal just how dire the situation was, even in a remote area like James Bay. In the winter of 1928-29, after months of scouring the 25,000 square kilometres around Rupert House, the community’s desperate trappers had only four beaver pelts to show for their efforts.
Meanwhile, hundreds of kilometres to the south, Archibald Belaney, an English immigrant who had adopted a First Nations persona and the alias Grey Owl, had taken up the beaver’s cause. In 1928, after years of making his living as a trapper in northern Ontario and Quebec, Belaney swore off trapping and set out to save the species he had come to see as a symbol of Canada’s vanishing wilderness. His passionate and eloquent writings, published under his pseudonym, soon drew international attention to the beaver’s plight.
In 1928, the Dominion Parks Branch made a 13-minute, black and white silent motion picture featuring Grey Owl — wearing his customary buckskin jacket and moccasins — and his two pet beavers, Rawhide and Jelly Roll. No professional filmmaker had ever filmed beavers in a natural setting, and Beaver People (which can be viewed on the National Film Board website) was a hit.
The following year, the parks commissioner offered Grey Owl a job and a new home by a secluded lake in Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert National Park. In his role as a live tourist attraction, the lanky, blue-eyed “Indian” solemnly greeted the hundreds of visitors who canoed and hiked to his cabin each summer and introduced them to Rawhide and Jelly Roll. The celebrity pair always came when he called, assured of receiving apples, peanuts and other treats. They also fulfilled their other obligation, producing annual litters to help rebuild the park’s decimated beaver population.