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Beaver survival stories in CVNP

4/26/2012 - West Side Leader
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By Jennie Vasarhelyi

CVNP — The Beaver Marsh along the Towpath Trail in Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) is a favorite park destination.

An easy 1/2-mile walk along the level trail from Ira Trailhead leads to this Watchable Wildlife location, a rich marsh where turtles, birds and small mammals congregate. Opportunities for nature observation are numerous here, starting with the North American beaver.

Ranger Heather Berenson explores the Beaver Marsh with a group of Junior Rangers.
Photo: Arrye Rosser, courtesy of National Park Service
Seeing an animal in the wild is thrilling. Learning more about it adds depth to the experience. For wildlife, this learning often comes through stories of survival. Beavers provide an excellent example of the wondrous stories of survival.

Animal survival stories start with the adaptations that help them find food, evade predators and protect them from the elements. Beavers have an unusual set of adaptations that capture the imagination. Their heavy, constantly growing front teeth let them become master wood workers, gnawing bark for food and felling trees for lodge and dam construction. Their dams create a watery marsh home, allowing them to avoid land and stay in the safety of water. Their broad, flat tails slap water to warn other beavers of danger. They can flee to the underwater entrance to their lodge, hidden from predators.

Other survival stories explore how an animal’s role in an ecosystem affects the survival of other species. Beavers have a particularly large role. By creating wetlands, they become habitat builders. Wetlands are among the most biologically rich habitats, making beaver contributions to natural diversity tremendous. The number of species of plants and animals that you can see on a walk through the Beaver Marsh is evidence of their contributions.

Survival stories extend beyond natural adaptations and ecosystems. In a world so influenced by people, they also include stories of survival as a species in the face of human pressures. Beavers have come back from the brink of extinction. Their populations are healthy in the CVNP, and you can find their signs along the Cuyahoga River even into Cleveland.

Pressures on their survival began with the early exploration and settlement of the continent. Beavers were the gold of the fur trade that drove Europeans into the interior of North America. Large fur trade companies like the Hudson Bay Co.; major trading centers like Pittsburgh and Detroit; encounters with American Indians who did much of the early hunting for beaver; and international relationships among Britain, France and the United States were all shaped by the fur trade.

Beaver fur, rather than money, became the unit of exchange during the fur trade. Fashion drove this emphasis. Beaver furs were made into felt that milliners used for a wide range of hat styles from Pilgrim hats to the plumed hats of Cavaliers. Perfume makers also valued beavers for their dried castor glands.

The price was astronomical in terms of number of beaver killed. In 1624, the Dutch West India Co. exported 400 beaver skins from New Amsterdam, N.Y., inaugurating trade. A Hudson’s Bay Co. sale in November 1743 included 26,750 beavers. Between 1853 and 1877, when the fur trade was already waning, the Hudson Bay Co. still sold almost 3 million skins.

Part of the story of the fur trade took place along the Cuyahoga River. A 1755 map noted a trading post, known as the French House, along the Cuyahoga River near the Village of Boston. Early historians noted that in 1744 George Croghan set up a trading post at a Seneca village east of the mouth of the river. According to historians, Croghan earned respect from local tribes for his fairness, affability and ability to converse in Indian languages. Not all traders had a fair reputation. The cost of a rifle was a stack of beaver pelts as tall as the height of a rifle. Unscrupulous traders jumped on the stacked pelts to pack them down and produced longer barreled rifles. A cheap musket was worth $12; the pelts, hundreds.

Some fur traders began to anticipate what would happen with unrelenting hunting and began to promote hunting regulations. Nevertheless, by 1830, beavers had disappeared in Ohio and many other states. Their rebound began in the 1890s, when some states with lingering beaver populations added game laws to protect beavers. In the early 20th century, state initiatives to restock beavers began. Beavers reappeared in Ohio in 1936, spreading from Michigan and Pennsylvania, where they had been reintroduced by sportsmens’ organizations or escaped from fur farms.

Beaver behaviors have helped with their rebound. One reason that beavers spread relatively quickly is that parents push out their 2-year-old kits, who must seek a new area to live. Some biologists contend that beavers became nocturnal with the tremendous hunting pressure because their chances of survival increased by being active during the cover of night and less active in the day.

Stories of nature — like that of the beaver — are part of the national park experience made possible by park rangers who specialize in the field of interpretation. Park rangers strive to relate these stories in ways that inspire, pique curiosity and reveal the human condition, while also providing for enjoyment of the national park. Try a ranger-led program to discover more stories of CVNP. Our quarterly Schedule of Events is located online at www.nps.gov/cuva and in park visitor centers.

You can join a park ranger for a 1.5-mile walk along the Towpath Trail to the Beaver Marsh to explore how it comes alive as spring arrives. The walk will take place April 29 at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Meet at the Ira Trailhead, 3801 Riverview Road, north of Ira Road in Peninsula.

Jennie Vasarhelyi is chief of interpretation, education and Visitor Services for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Park Ranger Pamela Machuga contributed to this story.

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