Leave it to the Beavers

Written by Mart Allen for The Adirondack Express

The beaver is one of the most enigmatic animals in the annals of American history. It, perhaps like no other animal, spurred expansion across a continent. The first white men to penetrate the West went there in search of fur and principally the beaver. Their fur was widely sought after for felt used in making the top hats that became widely popular in the eighteen hundreds.

The beaver is the only animal outside of man that is known to alter the terrain to suit his specific needs for sustenance and protection. It is this proclivity that makes this large rodent one of the most perplexing and problematic animals throughout the world. The question is do they do more good than harm to the environment and landscape?

If I had to use one word to describe a beaver it’s indefatigable. Anyone who has ever had to deal with halting their assaults on improvements such as roads, landscaping etc. knows what I am talking about. Landowner, farmers, railroads, and highway superintendents wage continual war with them. Even if they are once eradicated from a problem area it is not long before others recognize the site as a potential location for building an impoundment with the least amount of energy, which incidentally they abound in. Their very name has become synonymous with energy and industry.

I have been on familiar terms with beaver beginning in 1945 or 1946. It was the first open season on beaver in New York in years. You were only allowed to set six traps and were limited to five beaver. I caught my first and figured I had reached the highest pinnacle in the fur trapping history. Looking back on it today I realize that I did pretty well for a kid that hereto fore had only caught muskrats and mink.

The only traps available at the time were foothold traps limited to six inch jaw opening and the animals were large, hard to hold and the secret was drowning them before they could pull out or twist a front foot off. Many beaver and muskrat were missing a foot after one such episode and trappers regretted it more than any other group because they were intimately involved with them. The wounds healed and many lived to a ripe old age smarter and wiser. Trappers feel the same as a farmer whose welfare depends on his animals and theirs on him. I know that many reading this are going to lament that trapping is inhumane but I would like to point out that nothing dies a natural death in nature. If you are not a vegetarian it is rather hypocritical to look upon it in that way.

Trappers and those with a vested interest in the fur industry work tirelessly to find more and better ways to make trapping more humane. In the sixties a man named Eric Conibear designed a trap that caught the animal by the neck and body. The trap either breaks its neck and or suffocates the animal quickly. It is a particularly humane when trapping under the ice or deep water where the animal drowns quickly. A wise trapper only takes the surplus animals and leaves plenty for seed and in relative balance with its environment.

After the development of the Conibear trap I used it exclusively for beaver and otter trapping specifically because of the reason I listed above. The only drawback was they were much heavier than the other traps and a real burden to pack on your back with snowshoes. The snowmobile eased the burden for me and ended the grueling days on snowshoe and extended stays back in the woods miles from civilization with no means of communication. I reveled in the back country trapping trips much as I would guess mountain climbers do their sport. It was a challenge not to be taken any more lightly than rock climbing. I have worked at some of the most demanding physical labor imaginable but nothing any harder than back country trapping. You were entirely on your own and every step had to be considered thoroughly.

I never fully realized just how demanding it was until dabbling in beaver trapping again this past spring after thirty years or so in limbo. My grandson Tecwyn Williams has decided that he wants to round out his outdoor sporting career and try his hand at trapping. He has to take a test to demonstrate that he understands the trapping laws and to ensure that he understands the ethics commensurate with animal rights and sportsmanship. The course leading up to the test is given by state approved instructors. I got a license and let him tag along to see firsthand some of the actions, equipment and work he will be getting himself into.

I know of no other group with the close knit solidarity of trappers. Two of my close friends Morgan Roderick and Pete Wagner who along with me are far beyond the bounds of calling ourselves trappers any longer gave him a very generous gift of traps and gear to get him started.

I can’t wait until he strikes out on his own and I can begin living vicariously again in the wonder and adventure I know awaits him as it once did me. I am sure Morgan and Pete had the same thing in mind when they offered the traps.

The thought for the week comes from Walter Williams: Political power doesn’t necessarily translate into economic power and well being for ordinary citizens.