There were once millions of beavers across North America. The beaver pelt trade made us rich and facilitated the exploration of the continent. We nearly drove them extinct before the Europeans hunger for pelts waned.
What we are just now learning is how much the beaver shaped the landscape and how much we continue to lose by killing them.
I once wandered the plateau of Allegheny Mountain in wilderness area called Dolly Sods, in search of blueberries, huckleberries and brook trout. These forays alone, or with friends Steve Richards or Sull McCartney are some of my richest memories of the few years I lived in the beautiful Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.
The meandering streams were punctuated by beaver dams that slowed the water and created meadows for large deer and bear, and habitat for those brookies, always hungry for a tiny dry fly. Fire had shaped Dolly Sods many years before, after the first cutting of timber, taking the soil away to bedrock in many areas, making them stony deserts. The beaver moved in, harvested the remaining trees, and built dams on most of the streams. These dams not only created habitat, but they trapped sediment that filled in the bedrock and reclaimed the mountain top.
One October I went backpacking on Dolly Sods alone, to try and catch some fall color; maple and aspen, and the deep green of the signature flag spruce. What I got was an early snowstorm, and a lesson in just how worthless plastic sheeting is for shelter. But the snow didn’t stop the beavers from their work until dark. A periodic slap of beavertail on water, reminded me I was a visitor, and they’d just as soon I leave. And leave I did, after taking a couple of rolls of film, with frozen hands and soaked sore feet, and a pocketful of memories, at least partly thanks of those beavers.
I’m not sure what has happened since I left the area in 1978, but I can bet there are a lot more trees than before, probably fewer blueberries, but a healthy young spruce forest.
For more on new thinking and research on the value of beavers go to: Voyage of the Dammed