Beaver eating on a willow bush. Click on photo to buy print or license photo
Native American legend across the country holds that the Great Spirit built the land, made the seas, and filled both well with animals and people: Long, long ago when the Great Waters surged in a blind and shoreless world, the gigantic beaver swam and dove and spoke with the Great Spirit. The two of them brought up all the mud they could carry, digging out the caves and canyons and shaping the mud into hills and dales, making mountains where cataracts plunged and sang. Some tribes believe that thunder was caused by the great beaver slapping his tail.
A beaver packing food to the den for winter storage in Yellowstone National Park. Click on photo to buy print or license photo
Beavers are a “Keystone species” this means that beavers play a crucial role in biodiversity that has a disproportionate effect on its environment relative to its biomass and plays a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community whose effect on the community is greater than would be expected. Innumerable species relies either partly or entirely on beaver ponds. Therefore, wherever we coexist with them, they provide the habitat necessary for supporting many other species, and protecting the web of life.
Like a little person with a fondness for engineering. The beaver is forty inches long, and over a foot upright they have brown fur and large flat tail. They are among the most skilled builders in the animal kingdom. American beavers build dams that stop flowing water. These dams help create wetlands. This provides habitat for mammals, fish, frogs, turtles, birds, and ducks. Their handiwork can be seen throughout the Greater Yellowstone System.
The beavers’ ability to purposefully change and reshape their environment to fit their needs is rare in nature. Humans and elephants are the only other animals that have such a large impact on their environment. Beavers devote much of time to building and maintaining their dams. A beaver’s desire to build a dam is very instinctive, and they seem to not be unable to tolerate moving water, as it must be stopped. Beavers in captivity will build useless dams just so they can build. In the wild, scientists have observed beavers making repairs and additions to human-made dams. Beavers hate the sound of running water. It makes them think there could be a leak in their dam. If they hear running water, they will often workday, and night to find the leak and repair it. A Jackson Hole rancher, Chancy Wheeldon, one day built a pond all, but the spillway, which he would complete the following day. The next morning he awoke to find beavers had finished his dam and it leaked the perfect amount to regulate stream flow. That morning he got to enjoy and extra pot of coffee.
Beaver swimming in pond in Grand Teton National Park. Click on photo to buy print or license photo
Dams must be continuously maintained, and beavers do so every night, replacing shifted sticks and poles and patting on more mud. They build dams throughout their territory; some for water control; some, it seems, just for fun. A family of beavers can build a 35-foot long dam in a week
Beavers are among the largest of rodents. They are herbivores and prefer to eat leaves, bark, twigs, roots, and aquatic plants, and fish upon occasion. They move with an ungainly waddle on land but are graceful in the water, where they use their large, webbed rear feet like swimming fins, and their paddle-shaped tail as rudders. These attributes allow beavers to swim at speeds of five miles per hour. They can remain underwater for 15 minutes and have a set of transparent eyelids that function much like goggles. Their fur is naturally oily and waterproof.
Beaver heading for the beaver slide in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Click on photo to buy print or license photo
After years of decline, beavers are returning to Yellowstone Park. Before wolves were reintroduced, an over abundance of grazing animals had decimated Yellowstone’s riparian areas, This overgrazing included Cottonwood, Aspen, and willows sprouts depriving beaver food and material to build their habitat. Wolves thinned the elk and bison populations and willow; Aspen and cottonwoods are again lining the banks of Yellowstone’s waterways. As you can see wolves are a keystone species also.
Aside from the very important biodiversity issue, most people are unaware that there are many other benefits to beaver ponds. Benefits of Beaver Ponds include, a decrease in damaging floods, recharge aquifers, removal of pollutants from surface and ground water, drought protection, decreased erosion, they produce food for fish and other animals which support biodiversity, including 43% of our endangered species, creating vital habitats while preserve open space.
Beaver harvesting willow in Grand Teton National Park. Click on photo to buy print or license photo
All this creates a greater opportunity for wildlife observation, hunting and trapping, canoeing/kayaking, fishing, photography, bird watching and quiet relaxation in nature.
Dome like beaver homes, called lodges, are constructed of branches and mud. They are often strategically located in the middle of ponds and can only be reached by underwater entrances. They burrow tunnels for homes along river edges along the riverbank.
Beavers mate for life, but if one mate dies, the other one will find another mate. Beavers mate when they are about three years old The babies eyes are open when they are born, and they can swim within 24 hours of birth and will be exploring outside the lodge with their parents within a few days. Both the male and the female take care of the young beavers. They will stay with their parents for two years. Beavers can live to be 20 years old.
Beaver’s thick, soft pelts were the initial draw to the Rocky Mountains for trappers in the early 1800.s. Beaver furs were highly coveted in Europe for centuries, and the animals were hunted nearly to extinction on that continent by the mid-1500s. The North American beaver trade served as new, seemingly endless supply, and beaver hats were all the rage again in Europe by the mid-1600s, funding the continued development and settlement of the American colonies much to the charging of the beaver. By the mid 1800s, American beavers were on the brink of being wiped out, and their salvation and eventual recovery hinged on the whims of fashion: In the 1840s, silk top hats replaced beaver-felt hat as the must-have head wear. Todays predators including hawks, owls, and otters. Bears, wolves, and coyotes will also take older beavers that are especially vulnerable when seeking new territories.
In the last 50 years, as environmental regulations improved water quality and habitat, beavers at last staged their comeback in the Rockies. Beavers have responded well, and now they’re found pretty much everywhere around the Rockies ad elsewhere wherever there’s water.