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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Beavers in BC - observations and speculation

In June 2008, I was fortunate to travel in BC to visit friends and relatives. Unfortunately time was far too short but we managed to see a fair few Beaver locations and Salmon facilities. We started in Abbotsford near the head of the Frazer river delta, stopped at Hope; Through the Hope Princeton Highway to Kelowna; From Kelowna through Williams Lake to Prince Rupert; On the ferry from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy at the north end of Vancouver Island; Down to Nanaimo on the inner coast and then to Sook on the south west coast. From there we took the ferry from Victoria over to Tawassen and then back to Abbotsford.

With the time available and the distance to be covered, there wasn't a lot of time to check thing out and make careful observations so take the following with a grain of salt. However, in geographic order:

Bridge over artificial spawning canal in Hope, BC
Hope is a short way up the Frazer River. The Coquihalla River joins the Frazer at Hope. If you want to see a lovely little site, turn off on to the old Hope Princeton Highway which runs parallel to the new Vancouver-Princeton highway. Find Seventh Street. Walk or drive down seventh street and look for a big H sign. This is a signposting to the hospital. Turn right and you will find a little road bridge. Stop at the parking lot on the right. That bridge goes over a little stream which is actually an artificial spawning channel. It looks so natural that you would think it is a stream. Walk a little way down stream and you will come to a place where it empties back in to the coquihalla river. The reason I mention it here is that we were told that there is a beaver dam upstream in the spawning channel. We didn't have time to check it out but maybe someone who reads this might have a look and write a comment.

Beaver nibbling vegetation in lake side wetland in Kelowna
My uncle Arthur has been instrumental in establishing and running a couple of wetland/bird sanctuaries in Kelowna. The first is Water Front Park just north of the exit from the bridge that crosses the Okananan lake. Turn North on Water street. The road turns East (right)on to Clement Ave and you immediately turn left on to sunset drive. Past the buildings on the left you see open water. That is it. Turn left. This reserve is right on the shore of the Okanagan Lake in front of an apartment complex. It has an artificial osprey nest site which was occupied
almost before it was properly erected. A board walk allows you to walk around dry shod. You will notice almost all the trees are ringed with chicken wire. You can guess why. My wife thought she saw something brown and furry in the shadows across the water so she put her camera on maximum telephoto, steadied it on the rail of the boardwalk and shot a couple of pictures. Sure enough, when we put it on the TV screen there was a beaver nibbling on some branches that had escaped the chicken wire. Apparently beaver live in the Okanagan Lake because trees are cut down on the shore from time to time.

Art then took us to the bird conservation park. It is also right on the shore of the Okanagan Lake and also has a nice board walk that you can use to keep dry shod. As we crept along, we saw a turmoil and a splash in shallow water just below us. A ripple formed and something swam under water. Another beaver. About 20 meters further on he hauled out of the water, sat up on his hind legs and proceeded to eat some twigs. Here also most of the trees are protected by chicken wire so the beavers have to take what they can get. So much for beavers being nocturnal. I'm sure they are but they aren't shy about coming out in the day if they feel safe.

After a few days in Kelowna, we headed up towards Prince Rupert. Art put me on to a most amazing book that I must tell you about. It is called Three Against the Wilderness by Eric Collier. Eric married a quarter Indian girl, Lillian and had a son, Veasy. Lillian had a full blooded Indian Grannie, Lala, who she looked after. Lala was very old and she knew a thing or two. She told her grand daughter and Eric to go up to the headwaters of Meldrum Creek where she had been raised and bring back the beaver so the other animals would return. When they had finally cut their way through with their wagon, they found nothing but coyotes to trap to keep them in the cash they needed for store bought goods. Almost nothing lived in the high Chilcoten plateau where once there was an abundance of life. I won't spoil the story for you but suffice it to say that they did bring back the beaver. If I was to say the results were spectacular I would be guilty of gross understatement. What is most amazing (for us whites who think we are the repository of all knowledge of any value) is that Lala knew what we are just discovering back in the late 1800's.

Old beaver cut stump in headwaters of Meldrum Creek
We tried to get up to Collier meadows but missed on our first try and had to get on to an appointment with some Grizzly bears but that is another story. Perhaps anyone who has visited Collier meadows could add a comment to this blog. On Google Earth, many of the locations in the area where you would expect beaver ponds are empty. I wonder if the ecosystem that Eric, Lillian and Veasy reestablished is still in good shape. It will depend on whether the beavers are still there. The picture of the old beaver cut stump is taken beside one of the dams that Eric and his family rebuilt before they received their first beavers. It is probably decades old and was the only trace of beavers that we found by that dam.

On a trip shortly after that, we managed to drive up to the head waters of Meldrum Creek. While we didn't have a lot of time to explore, the beavers were gone and only traces of previous activity were left. I don't know if this is the case for all the area where Eric lived and worked but if it is, it is very sad and in need of some explanation as to what has happened.

We continued on our way to PR. After dinner we went for a walk across the bridge on Lake and along the far shore. Suddenly we were startled by a rifle shot. Only it wasn't. It was a beaver slap. It wasn't long before we discovered through the light screen of trees a beaver patrolling back and forth on the lake. We got him to slap again but after that he seemed to work out we were no threat and ignored us. I think he either had a den in the mud of the shore or wanted to get to the succulent shore side alders to eat. A number of them had been beaver felled so he obviously ate there sometime. We saw no sign of a lodge.

All along the rout up to Prince Rupert there are many ponds and small lakes along the road and many more further away from the road. In our mad dash for Prince Rupert, we saw a number of beaver lodges but no beaver dams. Whether this was due to not being able to get out and look around properly or because the beaver population has not yet expanded to the point where they need to build dams in order to have a suitable habitat, I don't know. It could also be that people are destroying beaver dams. We found ambivalent attitudes towards beavers, even amongst some fisheries biologists and evidence of some hunting of beavers for their pelt. In the Indian (First Nation) museum in Prince Rupert we met a chap who assured us that the pelt on display was beaver and than he had many in the freezer waiting for processing.

Fall scene in Chilcoten, BC,  Poplars are replacing pine
Another interesting thing we saw was the beginning of the demise of the pine forest. Wherever you had a view of a mountain side, there would be the dark green of the pine trees with swaths of red brown dying trees and the autumn yellow of the changing leaves of the poplars. Apparently the Pine Beetle, which we were told had always lived in the forest, is spreading a fungus that is decimating pine trees. The prevalent theory is that the winters are no longer hard enough to knock back the pine beetle populations. I can believe it. Eric Collier talks about winters of 50 below and more. All through the forests were veins of light green. These were poplar trees which apparently are the pioneer species which is replacing the pines. Some alders were also seen here and there along the road verges. This is hard on the logging industry which is dependent on the pines but one has to wonder if it won't result in a much more interesting ecology. Pine forests are sterile places with sour soil and not much growing on the forest floor. Deciduous forests have rich dark soil from the yearly leaf fall, all sorts of bushes in the understory and a far richer population of animals. In addition, beaver can use poplars for food and construction so their just may be a resurgence of beaver dams from the nucleus population we saw throughout the area. With the beavers will come all the other animals mentioned in Three Against the Wilderness and perhaps eco-tourism or something else will replace logging as the prime money spinner in the area. The preponderance of Evergreens might actually be the explanation for the lack of new beaver dams and if so, this is about to change.

On up to Prince Rupert to see the Grizzly bears in the Kotsamatine reserve. Glad we were looking from a boat. Prince Rupert has one of the most beautiful beaver sites I have seen right withing the city limits. If you are coming from the ferry you will see an RV camping ground on the left. A little further on, there is a motel/hotel with a path just before it going down into a little valley. Follow that path and you will come to Moris lake in Morsby park. The lake (large pond) has been created by building a cement weir across its lower end. A fish ladder allows salmon to come up into the pond. What is amazing is that there is a main highway on one side and a housing development on the other side. The tops of the houses are visible from the path that runs along the side of the pond. Beavers have built a lodge on the far side of the pond right up against the shore and a couple of food piles further into the pond. We watched the beaver swim over to our side, grab a Lilly pad leaf in its paws, scrunch it up and eat it from one end to the other like a carrot. A little later it was patrolling back and forth in front of us and as soon as my wife had begun to video it, I waved my arms and we recorded a good beaver slap. We managed to get a second slap and then the beaver got bored with the game and ignored us.

If you walk up the path beside the stream that feeds the pond, you come to the RV park (camping ground). Here at the end of the camping area is another beaver pond. It is hard to recognize the dam as it is very old and grown over with vegetation. The pond is still full of dead snags from when the pond area was flooded originally. Recently the beavers tried to build another dam on top of the old one but the owner got the parks board to remove the beavers and the dam. What a missed opportunity. Can you imagine the draw card an active beaver site would have on your RV tourist who is getting more and more ecologically conscious all the time. I should mention that the camp operators have put large piles of rubble where the path from Morse Pond comes to the RV site. This makes the beaver pond beside it a bit hard to access unless you are a customer in the RV camp. The silly thing is that they have lots of free board so the beavers could build a considerable dam without any danger to the camp.

We see signs all over North America that people are beginning to realize the benefits of having beavers in the ecology (creating the ecology might be more accurate). As people who have woken up and realized what effect the beavers have, we can only keep up the gentle pressure. We certainly don't want to alienate people and get their backs up. Getting a copy of Grey Owl for them to read or show to their children or getting a copy of Eric's book for them to read are a couple of measures we can take. And if we can take a class of school children to a local beaver dam and talk to them really quietly so as not to disturb the beavers maybe we can convert them at a young age. Wanting to destroy beavers and their works is simple ignorance and ignorance is only countered by education.


Sebastian Goeres said...

hi, did you consider to implement a rss button or email subscription button?

cala said...

Hi, I found your blog after reading "Three Against the Wilderness" and I wonder how the ecosystem that the Colliers refurbished is doing these days. Still looking for the cabin or directions to it as I'd love to visit up there some day.