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Can We Coexist with Beavers?

As we green our communities, wildlife is slowly returning. As wildlife returns, we need to find ways to coexist with these animals.

As we green our communities, wildlife is slowly returning. As wildlife returns, we
need to find ways to coexist with these animals. One creature that has returned
is the beaver. Beavers are amazing creatures that provide valuable ecological
services. Beavers, like people, build structures in order to modify their habitat. Beavers frequently build dams in streams to create ponds and wetlands, which provide valuable habitat not only for the beavers, but also for many other creatures. Beaver dams also help clean our streams. Excessive sediment, one of the major problems facing our local streams and the Chesapeake Bay, has an opportunity to settle out behind the beaver dams.

While beavers are important, they can create problems in our built-out urban
environments. We have watched in alarm as ecologically valuable reforestation
sites along streams (riparian zones) are quickly destroyed as beavers cut down
newly planted trees. This, of course, is not vandalism. The cambium layer of trees (located just beneath the bark) is an important source of food for beavers in the fall and winter. In a healthy ecosystem, the loss of these trees would be part of a natural forest succession. However, due to the onslaught of invasive exotic plants and the high concentrations of deer in the lower portions of Montgomery County, the forest successions have been disrupted. As a result, the beavers’ feeding practices are negatively affecting their environment. Beavers can also create serious and expensive problems in stormwater ponds built to protect downstream communities. Beaver dams can also flood low lying property.

Recently Rob Gibbs, the County Parks Natural Resource Manager, gave an interesting presentation to Friends of Sligo Creek on how Montgomery County is working to balance the needs of humans with the needs of beavers and many other creatures. Once nearly extinct, beavers have returned to all our county’s stream valleys including Sligo Creek, the Northwest Branch and Rock Creek.  Rob noted that the park staffs work to accommodate beavers.  Significant trees that are in danger of being cut down by beavers can be protected with three foot high cages. Rob also showed a cleverly designed drainage system that goes through a beaver dam and allows parks staff to control the water level behind the dams, thus preventing flooding in nearby low lying areas. Much of Rob’s effort goes to educating Parks staff about how to coexist with beavers. 

Sometimes beavers will move into stormwater ponds. These ponds are engineered structures designed to capture and slowly release rain water.  Because these ponds control flooding, thereby affecting the safety of nearby areas, they must be operated and maintained according to county regulations.  The Parks staffs are working to make these ponds “beaver resistant” by using fencing around the drainage pipes.  Beavers will instinctively block a stormwater
pond drain pipe, effectively disabling one of the pond’s main functions, storing stormwater runoff. Beavers are territorial, and it can be difficult to relocate them because there are no streams in the county that do not already have beavers living in them. In these cases, beavers are captured and euthanized in a humane manner.

The problems with beavers coexisting with humans come down to how we have modified land to meet our needs.   All too often, decisions on if and how we developed land in the past did not take into account the impacts on our natural resources. As we work to green our communities, we will need to be smarter in our land development and become better stewards of our properties.  By taking meaningfulpersonal action, we can successfully coexist with beavers and other wildlife. For example, if homeowners successfully manage stormwater on their properties, we will be less dependent on the stormwater ponds, eliminating on source of conflict between us and the beavers. 



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Danila Sheveiko May 21, 2012 at 03:49 PM
Thanks for an informative article, Ed!
Alex Fairfield May 21, 2012 at 09:48 PM
Thanks for a good article. Many people are unaware that beaver are in our local streams! One very dry summer I came upon a beaver pond that had popped up in just few days. It was evident that the pond they had made saved many fish and turtles from the drought we were having. The delight of watching beaver swim in the evening never ends for people and especially children along the NWB who come upon them. Let's protect those trees with 3-foot cages, and if beaver need to be removed, perhaps they can be re-located outside Mont. Cty. if all of our streams have already been claimed by other territorial beaver.
Ed Murtagh May 22, 2012 at 01:00 AM
thanks for your comment Alex about the delight kids have when they find the beaver dams. The kids in our Wheaton community were thrilled to see a beaver lodge so close to their own homes. I wanted to make sure I had one of the kids in my photo of the dam. She was so excited seeing it.
Heather Phipps May 23, 2012 at 08:06 PM
This is a great article Ed and I love how you tied it into LID/ESD on our own properties. I would say that our decisions on modifying lands to meet human needs have also had an impact on the deer populations. I look forward to the day when we as humans can say we are nature's partners instead of her managers because then we will be more aware of how natural resources and cycles really work so we can co-exist more sustainably and peacefully within Earth's ecosystems and with our fellow creatures.

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