Icebergs were still floating on Kendall Lake, but biologist Meg Plona’s volunteers were undaunted.
They had important business to attend to in the soggy, half-frozen Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which sits between Akron and Cleveland, Ohio. It was time to count beavers.
Wilbur “Mac” McQueen, 85, of Sagamore Hills Township, Ohio, was armed with binoculars. Volunteers Judy Biscan, 68, of Twinsburg, Ohio, and Peg Bobel, 64, of West Akron, Ohio, studied the lake and the surrounding terrain.
The bundled-up trio scanned the waters for lodges and floating caches of sticks. They searched the banks for gnawed trees, freshly cut sticks, mudslides into the water and dams of sticks and mud built by the beavers. They looked closely for fresh sticks and fresh mud on lodges.
They found plenty of beaver signs around Kendall Lake, perhaps as many as three lodges. The toothy mammals did not show up in person.
Kendall Lake and its side streams had two lodges in the 2006 count.
The evidence ranged from pencil-size sticks that have been gnawed to a V-shaped wedge being cut into an oak tree that is 4 feet in diameter. Beaver gnaws were everywhere. The park even installed chicken wire around the base of some trees to thwart the beavers. The return of the beaver to the Cuyahoga Valley has created more wetlands, in turn creating habitat that is highly desirable for other wildlife.
The park’s beaver census began in December and will be completed in March, Plona said. The park’s last beaver counts were in 1991 with a total of 200 and in 2006 with a total of 115. The drop was probably triggered by the beavers “eating themselves out of house and home,” Plona said. They probably moved elsewhere along waterways out of the park, she said. Plona said she is expecting a slight increase this year, perhaps 115-125 beavers.
100 spots surveyed
The count is being conducted by six volunteers who will survey 100 spots in the 33,000-acre park where beavers have been active before.
One volunteer, John Zevenbergen, will survey the banks of the Cuyahoga River within the federal park for evidence of beavers lodging in burrows in the banks.
Other areas of the park with numerous beavers include the Beaver Marsh in Cuyahoga Falls with three lodges, the Ohio and Erie Canal north of Station Road Bridge, Armington Pond off Quick Road and Meadowedge Pond off Oak Hill Road, both in Boston Township, and near park headquarters off Riverview Road in Brecksville, Ohio.
The Beaver Marsh was once an old auto junkyard until the beavers got busy and created the wetland off Riverview Road near Ira Road. It is a popular spot with its wooden boardwalk.
Plona added that almost every Cuyahoga River tributary within the park may house beavers, especially at the edges of the park. But the new count is not designed to be a sweeping, count-everything effort, just a count-in-spots-where-we’ve-seen-them-before approach, she said.
Beavers were once eliminated from Ohio. By 1830, after nearly 200 years of heavy trapping for their desirable pelts, they were gone. The National Park Service uses a formula to determine how many have returned to the park, Plona said.
A lodge — either a dome-shaped structure of sticks in the water or a bank lodge — adds three beavers to the tabulation. A food cache of sticks adds five beavers to the total.
Winter is a good time to conduct a beaver census because they are active (they breed in January and February) and it’s easy to spot beaver evidence atop the snow, Plona said.
Happy to help
For the volunteers, counting beavers in the middle of winter is fun.
“Just being outside is great,” said McQueen, who is assigned to check for beavers in isolated pockets of the park. “Doing this is a fun thing to do.”
He also helps out on park surveys of birds and butterflies and has logged 2,000 hours as a park volunteer.
“If there’s running water, you are going to find beaver,” he said with a smile.
Biscan, a retired high school English and art teacher, helps check on the nesting bald eagles in the Pinery Narrows in the northern part of the Cuyahoga Valley park. She also tracks river otters and counts butterflies. She has logged 1,000 hours.
“It’s fun to be out in the park and hiking everywhere,” she said. “There’s a sense of discovery involved.”
The beavers are fun to watch because they’re “so enterprising,” she said.
The volunteers rarely see the animals. “We’re just too noisy and they hear us coming,” she said.
Bobel said she is fascinated by the beaver and its dam-building activities. She attributed her interest to the fact that her husband, Rob, is an engineer in the Cuyahoga Valley park.
She said the beavers are “so resilient, so adaptable, so fun to watch. They can alter their environment and create habitat for other species. I just enjoy them.
“I’m happiest mucking around in swamps,” she said with a laugh. “If we can help the park by gathering a little bit of information on natural resources, that’s great.”
The beavers tried to dam and refill Kendall Lake when park engineers lowered the lake for repairs to the dam, Bobel said.
Plona said the park has had to relocate a few beavers when their actions pose a threat to visitors or are likely to create a problem. But the park is more likely to remove the beaver dam, manipulate the water or protect trees. “Our goal is to learn to live with them,” she said. “Sometimes that takes a little persistence.”