When it comes to designing wildlife habitat, there are few things more efficient than a beaver. That’s good news for property owners who want to attract a diverse population of Maine animals and birds to their property. According to wildlife biologists, just about everything the beaver does improves its surroundings for other animals.
“If you think about it from a wildlife perspective, the beaver is the Tom Brady or the MVP of the wildlife world,” said Keel Kemper, regional wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “The reason for that is the beaver has the ability to alter habitat for the benefit of every other critter out there.”
When a beaver moves to a new location, Kemper said, the first thing it’s going to do is start constructing a dam to halt the natural flow of an existing stream or waterway.
“Pretty soon, here come the ducks, here come the deer and here come the moose to that pond,” Kemper said. “Anyone who enjoys watching wildlife loves beavers.”
The practical upsides for homesteaders when beavers move in are many, he said.
“The beaver shows up and pretty soon you have a pond that is great for fire protection,” Kemper said. “Those ponds also provide fresh water for crop irrigation or to water your garden.”
However, Kemper said that not everyone is a fan of what some refer to as nature’s engineers.
“Sometimes beavers do their best work in not the best places,” he said. “People don’t always like them cutting down trees or backing up water on their land.”
The good news is, there are steps you can take to mitigate the impact of beaver activity on your property, especially when it comes to trees.
The easiest way to protect your trees, Kemper said, is wrapping the base of the trunk with tar paper.
“Beavers have not figured out how to floss that gummy stuff on tar paper out of their teeth yet,” he said. “You can also use welded wire fencing around your trees or, for smooth-barked trees, buy paint, mix sand into it and paint the trunk of your tree.”
Whatever you do, if you don’t want beavers eating your trees, you had better do it quickly. According to Kemper, a beaver can fall an 18-inch oak tree in a single night. Their teeth never stop growing so they have to continually gnaw on something to keep them at a manageable length.
According to Kemper, a beaver or family of beavers goes after your trees for two basic reasons — food and shelter. Beavers are vegetarian and their primary food is the bark of hardwood trees. To get at the bark, the beaver uses its sharp and strong incisors to gnaw the trunk of a tree until it falls over.
Once it has eaten the bark, the beaver will drag the tree back to its pond and use it as building material for its home — known as a lodge — or for its dam. And it’s not building that dam because it wants the aesthetic of waterfront property, Kemper said. Rather, water is how the beaver likes to get around. And the larger the pond, the more food that is within the beaver’s reach.
“The beaver is creating that pond or flowage because he wants to swim to his food,” Kemper said. “Beavers are not stupid.”
Eventually, the beavers will exhaust an area’s food supply and move on. Without the rodents’ regular maintenance, the dam will wash away, the entire area will turn into a wet meadow and any human-beaver conflicts will be finished.
There are legal options for removing unwanted beavers from your property, and a bill before the Legislature would make it somewhat easier for landowners to do so.
For fans of beavers, having a lot of them on your property isn’t necessarily a good thing. Kemper said you may need to manage the population of beavers to keep those numbers down so they don’t deplete the food sources.
Because they are vegetarians, beavers pose no threat to humans, pets or livestock, Kemper said.
“People should not fear beavers,” he said. “They think the beavers will come after them or their dogs if they are swimming in a pond and that is just not going to happen.”
Beavers also get a bad rap when it comes to the parasite giardia, Kemper said. When ingested by humans or animals, giardia can cause severe gastrointestinal problems. And while the parasite is carried in beaver feces, it’s not the only source.
“All the critters out there are pooping in the water,” Kemper said. “And when there are cases of giardia there is frequently a human fecal company factoring in as well, and with every dang critter out there pooping, the beaver needs to be given a bit of a break on this.”
Love them or hate them, Kemper said, beavers in Maine are not going anywhere as the state has a very robust population.
“To some people they are a problem and others are stoked when beavers come on to their land,” he said. “Since they are the Tom Brady of wildlife, we try to strike a balance that helps people and the beavers.”