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Pity the Poor Beaver: Getting reacquainted with our state's namesake critter 

Despite what University of Oregon fans say, Oregon is the beaver state.

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Aside from the coyote and wolf, no other mammal - including cows - has figured so dramatically in the commercial history of the state of Oregon as the North American beaver. Wars were fought over the beaver and much of western Oregon was impacted by the trapping of these animals and the sale of their fur. So much so, in fact, that by the mid-1800s they were almost extinct because of the international demand for their pelts. It's no wonder we are known as the Beaver State.

In the 1800s, anything that helped in making a buck in Oregon was quickly exploited, such as virgin forests, salmon and beaver. But, it's a love-hate-relationship depending on what a beaver was up to, it was (and still is) sometimes maligned for its diet of green plants that live near water, which includes precious and expensive landscaping.

Our native American beaver is the largest living rodent in North America. (The pestiferous Nutria, Myocastor coypus imported to ride the back of the fur trade comes close, but is a slightly smaller relative of the beaver, and essentially shares the same habitat.) Adult beavers tip the scales at about 40 pounds, measure more than three feet in length, including the tail, and their nose and ears seal out water. These semi-aquatic mammals have webbed hind feet, large incisor teeth and a broad flat tail.

The beaver's large teeth deserve some discussion. Although all rodent's teeth are similar to those of the beaver, the awesome size of the beaver's chompers is more noticeable. The beaver's sharp incisors, which are used to cut trees and peel bark while eating, are harder on the front surface than on the back, therefore the back surface wears faster, creating a sharp, hardened front edge that enables the animal to cut through wood like it was soft butter.

The incisors are continually growing, but are worn down by grinding, tree cutting and feeding. And that, Oh Best Beloved, can be a serious problem for rodents. If the lower jaw is injured to the extent that the upper and lower incisors no longer match up, the lower incisor will keep growing and eventuality go so far out of alignment that it will puncture the skull, or destroy the animal's ability to cut vegetation, resulting in death.

Beavers are extremely territorial, especially the males. They mark their territory by creating small mounds of mud, leaves and sticks, which they cover with castoreum, a pungent oil manufactured in the animal's kidneys. Trappers use the same oil - or one similar, often artificially made from chemicals - as "bait" to trap beaver.

At the 2011 Western States Fur Auction, beaver pelts sold for an average of $14.41, hardly worth the hard work of trapping them. It's not an exaggeration to say that Oregon - and most of the Northwest for that matter - was built on the back of the poor old beaver. From the beginning of man's interactions with wildlife, native peoples trapped beaver and manufactured warm, sturdy coats for winter from the fur.

When merchant sea captain Robert Gray sailed over the bar of the Columbia River (then known as the Oregon River) in May of 1792, the life of the beaver, the river and the Northwest changed forever. The river was renamed the Columbia, after Captain Gray's ship, the Columbia Rediviva. But that was nothing compared to the impact on the economy of the Northwest after Gray spent nine days on the river bartering with the native people for fur pelts before sailing away to England.

All it took was one look by the local merchants at those beautiful fur coats, and trading ships sailed from Britain for Oregon. The beaver robes were traded for beads and sold to hat makers in Europe. Most manufacturers found the coats satisfactory for making hats and robes, but when thousands upon thousands of freshly processed beaver pelts were shipped in place of coats and robes, the fur-processing businesses really started to grow, and "profit" became king.

Thanks to the fur of the exploited beavers, fur hats were shipped to the newly created United States of America by the millions. In Europe, the demand for beaver fur was so intense that European beavers were exterminated in Russia, with only a small population surviving in Sweden and Norway. That put a strain on the North American beaver, which, by the mid 1800s, was almost wiped out as well. The only thing that saved it from extinction was the difficulty of finding beaver and the evolution of the fashion and clothing industry.

Today, beaver are still trapped in Oregon for fun and profit, but with a condition. If a proposed trapper was born after June 30, 1968, he or she must complete an approved trapper education course, and it will cost a resident $47 for an annual fur-taker's permit, while a non resident will have to fork over $352. Inversely, residents 14 years or younger can trap beaver for nothing, as long as he or she has passed the course.

Back in 2009, Oregon Deparment of Fish and Wildlife invited landowners in the Roseburg area to help in the relocation of beavers that were causing problems elsewhere, instead of killing the offending animals. In that project, the department invited professionals who wanted to learn more of the ecological benefits that beaver provide. And no wonder, instead of measuring beaver in terms of dollar signs, they were looked at as to their helpfulness, and how that assisted other organisms living in the ecosystems in the area.

One of the leaders in this quest is Suzanne Fouty, a hydrologist with the Whitman Ranger District of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in northeastern Oregon. Fouty conducted a beaver workshop in July of 2010 and shared these findings:

* Beaver dams create ponds of varying depths, add wood to stream channels and create side channels.

* Beaver help to create viable riparian habitat and maintain water levels for healthy vegetation, increasing species diversity.

* Beaver ponds reconnect streams to water supplies and increase riparian species diversity. The result is that the valley floor becomes an active flood plain, decreasing flood magnitudes.

* Nutrients are recycled within the mineral and carbon cycles more efficiently because of stable beaver ponds.

* Water quality is improved through elevated water table and cooler temperature because of stable beaver ponds.

* Beaver ponds increase water stored in the ground and in plants that will slow the the rate at which water leaves a watershed.

* Ecosystem stability will be maintained through stable beaver ponds, even under climate change. Flood damage is reduced, and as a result, a more stable ecosystem will supply greater biodiversity.


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