Beaver Management Helps Landowners
North Carolina wildlife experts believe people and beavers share a common attribute that makes them unique from other members of the animal kingdom.
“Beavers are the only animals besides people that can really manipulate their habitat according to what they need,” says Colleen Olfenbuttel, the black bear and furbearer biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
Because of that ability to alter surroundings that best fit them, people and beavers often intersect—especially here in North Carolina. It’s why there has been a comprehensive plan in place for almost 20 years to ensure beavers can thrive while farmers and other landowners can enjoy and use their property.
“The North Carolina Beaver Management Assistance Program has been highly successful and proven and saved millions of dollars in damage to agriculture, roads, timber and other structures,” says Olfenbuttel, who also chairs the program’s advisory board, which includes two representatives from North Carolina Farm Bureau.
“It’s really helped people resolve their problems when they really weren’t sure what they could do. We’re pretty proud of this program and the savings it’s provided North Carolina,” she adds.
Why the Program Is Needed
Olfenbuttel estimates about 500,000 beavers live in North Carolina, a figure she says is conservative because of how the animal’s population has rebounded strongly in the past 30 years. She says beavers live in all 100 counties but predominantly can be found in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain. Those regions contain many more slower-moving streams, lakes and ponds that appeal much more to beavers than rockier territory and stronger currents found within the state’s mountains.
In rare cases, North Carolina beavers can become as large as 80 pounds, but Olfenbuttel says most are a fraction of that weight or size.
Near the beginning of the 1900s, beavers nearly were eradicated in this state because of the value of their fur and lack of regulation that limited hunting and trapping. The establishment of harvesting guidelines and declining value for beaver fur during the 1960s and ’70s allowed the animal’s population to rise again.
With more beavers came more problems.
“There are conflicts in how the beaver wants to use a person’s property and how a person needs to use their property,” Olfenbuttel says. These conflicts can range from fertile farmland being inundated with water that cannot run off easily to roadway and railway bridges being compromised because they have become beaver dam foundations.
Jon Heisterberg serves as North Carolina’s state director for U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services. Heisterberg arrived here back in 1989, three years before the General Assembly established the beaver management program as a pilot initiative in four counties—Bladen, Brunswick, Robeson and Sampson.
Heisterberg says immediate success propelled the program to be utilized by the Department of Transportation in all 100 counties. Forty-two counties also contribute $4,000 annually to the program so residents in those areas can obtain discounted services if a beaver dam is causing a nuisance.
“We are getting a better handle on things in individual counties that have participated in the program for a number of years. It’s easier to address recurring problems,” Heisterberg says.
How Beavers and Dams Are Removed
Beaver and dam removal begins when a farmer, landowner or DOT official spots an issue that likely stems from animal activity and contacts USDA Wildlife Services, which has a team of 18 professionals who cover the state and orchestrate the management program.
“We don’t necessarily remove the beavers and the dams just because someone might not like beavers. They have to have a reason why, and 95 percent of the time they do,” Heisterberg says.
The USDA team usually makes several visits to the dam site to assess the situation and plan strategy. Humane traps are used to catch the beavers and precise explosives are utilized if the dam cannot be taken down simply by hand.
“One thing people always might have a misconception about is that beavers live in the dam. They don’t,” Heisterberg says. “They just build the dam to flood water behind the dam. That’s where the put their lodges. They feel protected when they’re in water so the whole idea is to flood things as much as they can then they can swim to where they need to go.”
Beyond removing the dam itself, Heisterberg stresses that all of the beavers, that reside at the location must be caught and taken away, too.
“It doesn’t do any good to remove the dam without removing the beavers because you can remove the dam and that same night the beavers have come back to build the dam back up again,” Heisterberg says. “You have to do both in concert or you’re not going to get anywhere.”
Future of Beavers in North Carolina
“They do have benefits. When they manipulate a habitat it can cause problems but sometimes they can create wetlands. And then that wetland can create a habitat for a host of other wildlife species such as waterfowl,” Olfenbuttel says.
“In the end, the beaver is quite complex,” she adds. “We just try to encourage people to view beavers from both angles: one as an engineer who can create wildlife habitat here in North Carolina, but also recognize that they can cause conflict. That’s when we step in and do something to prevent that conflict from occurring.”