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A Life-Saving Deception

Published 03/15/05
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 36 Number 1, Spring 2005

It was a drizzly day in early August 2004. A small but industrious group was gathered on Marsh Hill Road, an unpaved country byway in central Ontario, northeast of the city of Toronto. Now and then, the odd driver who used the road slowed to glance at the unusual sight of about a dozen people, parked cars, a camera crew, and paraphernalia strewn about, including metal mesh, power tools, hammers, wooden posts, and an axe. Those driving by may have seen several men in waders standing in the dark water alongside the road, framed by dense, alder swampland. They probably had little idea that they were witnessing a life-saving operation.

A commitment to protecting beavers had brought this unusual group together. On this particular road — as is true across North America and in many other areas of the world — strategically-placed culverts beneath the road surface allowed for continued flow and channeling of water. The problem was that, from the perspective of local beavers, the road functioned as a perfect dam, and the culverts were holes in the dam that needed to be blocked. Beavers, who naturally build dams to create their ideal habitat, continually plugged those culverts with sticks. So after a heavy rain or the spring thaw, water built up until the road flooded, blocking access and necessitating road repairs. In response, local officials deployed Conibear traps to kill the beavers.

Traps, however, kill and maim cruelly and indiscriminately, and when a beloved pet cat was killed in one of the Conibear traps, a local woman named Sarah Lancaster took notice — and took action. She didn’t think that either cats or beavers should be killed, and believed that there had to be a better way to solve the problem of the beavers and the flooded roads.

Lancaster contacted various animal protection organizations, including API. Although API is headquartered in California, we also have a Canadian representative, and so frequently work on issues facing our northern neighbor. So API soon became part of an international coalition working together to save the beavers of Marsh Hill Road (and to protect the road itself).

Although many human-beaver conflicts result in beavers being trapped and killed, learned that a humane solution existed in the form of a "beaver deceiver." This ingenious device, which prevents beavers from damming culverts, was developed in the 1990s by Skip Lisle, and has been used successfully in many places, including Massachusetts, Colorado, Washington, Wyoming, Maine, and even Europe.

Armed with evidence of the deceiver’s successful deployment, Lancaster and her colleagues approached to the local town council, and despite of a lot of initial doubt and hostility, were able to garner support for a non-lethal approach to the problem on Marsh Hill Road. The township to pay for the materials Lisle would need, while other groups, including API, the Humane Society of the United States, AAA Wildlife Control (a Canadian company specializing in humane, non-lethal solutions to wildlife problems), Zoocheck Canada, and Animal Alliance of Canada, helped raised the remaining necessary funds. The coalition even enticed the Discovery Channel to dispatch a film crew to record part of the actual installation of the device.

A Humane Solution

In many places across the continent, conflicts between beavers and humans are on the rise, due in part to increased development in previously wild areas. Unfortunately, when the needs of beavers conflict with those of humans, lethal controls — including trapping and shooting — are often employed.

Not only is killing beavers unnecessary for mitigating conflicts, it is often less cost-effective than alternative, non-lethal approaches. A wide variety of humane approaches to solving problems with beavers is available. For example, although beavers seldom chew down large, valuable trees, if there is concern, trees can be protected with stout chain-link fencing wrapped around the trunks. Typically, however, prefer quick-growing, inexpensive willows, birch, and alders, at any rate.

When beaver dams cause unwanted flooding, the problem can usually be solved simply by thrusting PVC pipes of varying diameter through the dams. The downstream ends can be capped, to allow a pond to form behind the dam, and then uncapped when excessive rain or snowmelt threatens to cause flooding. Or they can be left uncapped, above the water line, to prevent the water from flooding upstream. As long as the upstream and downstream pipe ends stick out far enough, the beavers won’t plug them, and maintenance or replacement is cheap and simple.

Another solution to flooding caused by dam-building is a deceiver (or "baffler") such as the kind installed on Marsh Hill Road. According to Lisle, who helped pioneer the technique, the exact construction and configuration of a beaver deceiver will vary from site to site, depending on the unique conditions. Broadly speaking, though, a deceiver is a trapezoid framework of heavy wood, with a sturdy, heavy gauge, six-inch-square steel mesh (the kind used in reinforced concrete, thus readily available from building supply sources) on the sides and bottom. This contraption is placed on the upstream side of a culvert, to prevent beavers from gaining access to the opening. While the animals might still swim into the culvert from the downstream side, they will not carry through sticks and block it.

The eyes of the community were focused intently on Marsh Hill Road — and on the results of the beaver deceiver. Some trapping proponents expected the deceiver to fail at curbing flooding. In light of the intense scrutiny, experts, including Lisle, the AAA, and the Toronto Wildlife Center, directed the initial installation of the device.

At press time, the area around Marsh Hill Road was frozen solid, so it was too soon to say exactly what outcome the installation of the deceiver will have. Previous experience in similar situations, however, bodes well for both the road and for the beavers. When the spring thaw begins, the community will have a better idea of exactly how well the device is serving its intended function.

API is proud to have been part of this community’s non-lethal approach to solving a longstanding human-wildlife conflict, and will continue to help communities across the continent find similarly humane ways of balancing the needs of people and the needs of wild animals.

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