LETHBRIDGE - Take a cold winter walk in the river valley and you may discover an unexpected surprise. The trail you have followed has led you down to the Oldman River. As you stand along its bank you notice steam coming up out of the ground. No, you have not just discovered a hidden hot spring. You have uncovered the hidden winter home of one of Lethbridge’s more common animals, the beaver.
Most people relish a wildlife sighting. But when it comes to beaver it is often a different story. Beaver, and their ability to transform the landscape, can be a topic of frustration for some. Most of this negative press is unwarranted and focused on the loss of trees. What we need to do is step back, and look at the bigger picture.
Let’s explore some of the common assumptions people make regarding beaver and do some myth busting!
A common misconception is that if left unchecked, beaver will eventually ruin the river valley. The truth is that the river valley looks the way it does as a result of beaver activity. Historically, beaver would have been found in much larger numbers than we see today. The density of populations (or the number of beavers per kilometer of river) would have been much, much higher. Their tree trimming, water slowing, habitat-building actions have built the floodplain forest as we see it today.
But beaver are so destructive!
In reality, a tree toppled by beaver has the potential to benefit many animals in the river valley community. Leaves and other debris from the fallen tree in the river become food for the larger water insects that begin to break these materials down. These aquatic insects are food for fish. The fallen tree also creates fish habitat, as water swirls behind the tree and pools develop. Any shade provided by this tree makes perfect spots for fish to hide. Waterbirds that specialize in eating fish benefit from the fact that the river has more fish in it. Lodges and dams slow the water down causing sediment to fall out. This improves water quality for both the fish, and people who get their drinking water from the river. The list of those who benefit goes on and on.
Some people believe that beaver will eat all the trees, shrubs and other plants along the shoreline, leaving nothing but a barren wasteland. The truth is that plants like willows respond positively to beaver activity. Beaver chewing stimulates willows to grow more vigorously. Willows help keep the shoreline intact. Healthy shorelines with dense shrub communities are premium nesting sites for many songbirds. Stabilized river banks mean less soil is eroding into the water and that makes for better water quality. Once again, better water quality is good for people and for wildlife too.
As we move towards spring, the weather will become milder and we can expect to see a slight increase in tree cutting activity. Winter food stores, cached under the water near their lodge, may start to run low. Peak tree felling activity happens in the fall, as beaver are busy creating these caches. The food they store will help them to survive the winter.
When beaver are present, the list of species that benefit is long. To learn more about this fascinating animal be sure to visit the current exhibition Beaver, Landscape Architects at the Helen Schuler Nature Centre. The exhibit includes stunning images captured by wildlife photographer Rick Andrews. The photos provide a unique perspective into the day-to-day activities of local beaver. Be sure to mark your calendar for March 7 for an insightful presentation by Ryan Heavy Head on Ksisskstaki (the Blackfoot word for beaver). The presentation runs from 7:00 - 8:00pm at the Helen Schuler Nature Centre.
For more information on the exhibit or to find out more about programs at the Nature Centre visit Lethbridge.ca/HSNC or call 403-320-3064.
(Photo credit: Ken Orich)
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