Conservation through Science under God

Newspaper: Beavers as pests, 1916
Nov 24, 2020 08:40 ET

[Reprinted from original]

November 24, 2020 — The most important animal in North America in the 1700s was not the mighty grizzly bear, nor was it the stampeding buffalo. Instead, the most-important animal in colonial America was the lowly beaver.

Beaver pelts were profitably used to make felt hats in Europe. The pursuit of beaver furs led to a decimation of the beaver population in Dakota and elsewhere, bringing an end to the fur-trading era by the mid-1800s.

Laws of Dakota Territory in 1887 prohibited killing or trapping beavers because cattle ranchers wanted beavers to make dams on streams as convenient watering places for cattle, saving stockmen the expense of building dams. The protection continued after North Dakota became a state two years later. Violators of the state game laws were subject to a one-hundred-dollar fine and imprisonment.

Some trappers defied the law, but the beaver population along the state’s streams and rivers eventually recovered, with the busy beavers making dams.

Unfortunately, protection of beavers worked too well and beavers proliferated, becoming a serious “pest in the Missouri Valley.” It became a choice … having beavers or having trees along waterways. Farmers became furious when beavers chewed-down groves of trees and beaver-dams flooded fields in the bottomlands. They demanded that lawmakers change beaver protection laws. And stockmen found windmill pumps to be more reliable than beaver-ponds, especially considering that cattle would sometimes drown amid beaver-dam debris.

Accordingly, on this date in 1916, the Bismarck Tribune reported on efforts to control the beaver population. The state Game and Fish Commission hired professional trappers to eradicate these so-called “evil … varmints” along the Missouri Slope and allowed additional trappers to buy licenses to harvest beaver pelts.

And so, the story of beavers went full circle, from abundance to near-extinction, followed by a revival that threatened farming and ranching. Today, beaver remain fair game in North Dakota for properly licensed hunters and trappers.