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Forest junkies

Beaver have had a tumultuous history in the Adirondacks

April 25, 2009
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

On a recent walk along the banks of Ray Brook, I was stunned to find trees scattered in all directions. At first glance, it appeared a windstorm had toppled them in random fashion; but upon closer inspection, the culprits were revealed. It wasn't the work of vandals. The large stand of poplar trees were victims of beaver, as evidenced by a wide and well used trail leading down to the brook.

On the brook, I found a new dam spanning the stream with a large lodge placed strategically in the middle of the new pond. The handiwork of these flat tailed, buck toothed engineers was impressive.

In the fall, when I last paddled the brook, I could easily negotiate the dam without exiting the canoe. It would not be possible now with the present four-foot drop.

Article Photos

Beaver are the official state mammal and grace the State Seal, yet they range across almost all of North America and into parts of Mexico.
(Enterprise photo by Joe Hackett)

Beaver are the largest rodent in the Adirondacks and their pelts were once considered the most valuable commodity of the New World. Beaver pelts were the original means of exchange among settlers and Native Peoples.

Beaver are the official state mammal and grace the State Seal, yet they range across almost all of North America and into parts of Mexico.

"No animal", declared Dr. C. Hart Miriam in 1901, "has figured more prominently in the affairs of any nation than has the beaver in the early history of the new world. It's influence on the exploration, colonization and settlement of this country was very great."

In 1601 the colony of New Netherlands furnished "full 80,000 beavers a year". By 1640, the beaver was extirpated from what is now New York State except for the colonies surviving in the Adirondacks. By 1815 beaver were still "so plentiful that it was possible for a party of St. Regis Indians to ascend the Oswegatchie River and return after an absence of a few weeks with 300 beavers skins."

Few people realize, that over the course of the next 50 years, the population of beaver plummeted. By the turn of the century, the animals were nearly extinct.

"In 1895, Mr. Wilbur C. Witherstine of Herkimer shot a beaver in the outlet of Madawaska Pond in Franklin County. About the same time, two beavers were caught by trappers from Saranac Lake", reports the Fall 1897 periodical Woods and Waters, "These are the last wild beavers that are known to to have been taken in this state."

By the winter of 1899, the state Legislature passed a law absolutely prohibiting the pursuit of beaver. In 1903, following a campaign waged by Harry V. Radford, the NYS legislature appropriated $300 for restocking efforts, but it wasn't until 1905 that three pairs were released.

Two pair of mating beaver were set free on the northeast inlet of Big Moose Lake, and soon moved into Beaver River. A third pair were liberated on a small stream entering the Moose River.

That same year, a dozen beaver were liberated in the preserve by Edward H. Litchfield near Tupper Lake.

It was at that time that the State Forest, Fish and Game Commission learned of the existence in waters northwest of the Upper Saranac Lake of a small colony of native beaver, the last of the original stock in that section. The official estimate of beaver in the Adirondacks was then about fifty.

In 1905, the Commission received an additional appropriation of $1000 and in 1906, 17 beaver were obtained from Yellowstone Park. These were distributed at several advantageous points across the park. By the end of 1906, it was estimated that the number of beaver in the mountains had increased to nearly one hundred.

According to an article in the July 4, 1915 New York Times, "The first attempt to restock Lake Placid with beaver was made by the Hon. George A. Stevens. On a return trip from Canada in 1907, he brought back a male beaver and released it in the lake. Soon, it began damaging trees and at once he was blacklisted by irate campers, and after a period involving the expenditure of much ammunition and more profanity he was finally shot."

I must assume the article speaks to the fate of the beaver and not Mr. Stevens.

Following the complete protection of beaver, which included hefty fines and the threat of imprisonment, the population expanded rapidly throughout the Adirondacks. Extensive stands of aspen and birch grew as a result of fires that ravaged the forest in the early 1900's. The resulting forest cover consisted mainly of poplar and birch, which provided an ideal food supply for the beaver and the population soared.

By 1924, due to a storm of protests centering on the destruction of property, timber, deer yards and trout habitat, the state reopened a trapping season for beaver. Population estimates at the time varied with possibly more than 20,000 beavers living in the Adirondacks.

In less than 20 years, fewer that 50 mating pair had repopulated the entire Adirondack Park, a fact that may give new meaning to the term "busy as a beaver".

Current estimates by the DEC Furbearers Specialists estimate the current beaver population in the Adirondacks to be around 80,000 animals. However, the department no longer conducts the annual aerial surveys that were used to establish this figure.

Trappers rarely venture into many wilderness areas, due to land use restrictions on motorized access. According to one DEC biologist, areas that are laced with rivers, streams and ponds, such as the the Five Ponds, Independence River and Moose River Plains have become "defacto beaver preserves".

Beaver dams can impound waters ranging in size from 1-200 acres and the longest beaver dam on record measured just shy of a mile in length and over 40 feet in height.

Beaver lodges are immense structures ranging from 25-30 feet in diameter and standing over 14 feet tall. Some are known to have existed for decades.

The average beaver is about 40 inches long and weighs about 45 pounds. It can live up to twenty years.

 
 

 

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