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Beaver trouble in Gatineau Park
John O'Reilly
February 09, 1959
Canada's national symbol matches wits with rangers and local citizenry in a friendly war between man and beast
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February 09, 1959

Beaver Trouble In Gatineau Park

Canada's national symbol matches wits with rangers and local citizenry in a friendly war between man and beast

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On occasion, the thing we love becomes a persistent nuisance, straining the emotions and bringing furrows to the brow. On this particular occasion it is the beavers of Gatineau Park, just across the river from Ottawa, the capital of Canada, where park officials are carrying on an odd form of creeping warfare designed to hold the beloved opposition in check but not wipe him out altogether. It is a campaign in which the attackers move against the fortifications of the enemy with small enthusiasm. But it has to be done because, as far as Gatineau Park is concerned, the furry Canadian national symbol has got entirely out of hand.

Fly over Gatineau Park's 72,000 acres and you see a magnificent, forested expanse pock-marked with denuded areas logged off by beavers. Penetrate the park on the ground and you encounter furious cottage owners who have suffered beaver damage in one form or another. Talk to park personnel and they will admit they are in a continuing fight to keep beavers from flooding roads, chopping up scenic areas or endangering property when their deserted dams collapse and cause flash floods.

Yet at the same time you learn that most Canadians have considerable affection for the very animals causing the damage. And well they might, for aside from being an interesting and engaging animal the beaver is responsible for the opening of the Canadian wilderness. It was the beaver's tawny hide that brought the trappers who paved the way for the settlers who built the Canadian nation. As a symbol the beaver is to Canada what the eagle is to the United States or the lion to England.

Gatineau Park with its hills and lakes is the pride of the Canadian capital. So far, 52,000 of its total acreage has been acquired by the Federal District Commission for development as a recreational showplace. There are four large lakes and 40 small ones. Trickling down its hillsides through hundreds of ravines are innumerable small streams bordered by a rich growth of birch, maple, poplar, pine, oak and balsam. It is wonderful country for tourists and ideal for beavers. In fact, in the old "days of the big fur trade Gatineau beaver pelts were generally considered to be the finest of all.

As the FDC continued to spend money to develop the park into a scenic playground it became apparent that there were no beavers there. Park Ranger John Scott says that even when he took his job 18 years ago there wasn't a single beaver in the whole place. They had been trapped out decades before. The region once famous for fine furs was devoid of the species. The FDC took note of this and decided to do something about it. This was one place in Canada that should not be without beavers and, furthermore, the admirable and lovable animals would attract more tourists.

To everybody's delight, eight beavers were turned loose in the park in 1940, and the following year nine more were planted near Lake Fortune in the southeast corner of the park. In time they and their offspring were putting on aquatic shows for tourists on summer evenings. It was all a great success—but then it unexpectedly began to take on ominous aspects. Long before the FDC would admit it the beavers were causing official headaches. They spread over the park and beyond. Hugh Conn, now fur conservation expert for the Indian Branch of the Citizenship Department and Canada's greatest beaver authority, has traced individual beavers on journeys up to 65 miles.

Today the forests around Lake Fortune have been destroyed, the trees felled by beavers or drowned in beaver lakes. But that was only the beginning. Beaver meadows dot the forest like mothholes. In the middle of the park there is a 15-mile stretch of almost unbroken beaver meadow, and the situation is getting worse.

This sounds grim, but to the park rangers and to others who understand the role of the beaver in a wilderness area it is merely a case of beavers and human beings wanting to use the same area at the same time. In a wild, unbroken forest beavers are great conservationists. It works this way:

A family of beavers moves into an area and builds a dam. This is done in the same manner that a human family would consult an architect and draw up plans for a home, except that the beavers don't need an architect.

The dam they build appears to be an ungainly structure, a massive tangle of logs, twigs, mud and leaves. But on closer study it proves to be a carefully designed thing which holds back thousands of tons of water yet keeps the lake at a constant level. If the water went through a single spillway floods would cause erosion and break a hole in the structure. To prevent this the beavers arrange the dam so that excess water trickles over the top in small amounts.

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