The Return Of Bucky Beaver
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
Back in the 1950’s, a toothy cartoon character named Bucky Beaver appeared on our old black and white TV screens promoting Ipana toothpaste. Later, Ipana toothpaste vanished from supermarket shelves, and Bucky disappeared from the air waves. There have been other cartoon depictions of beavers down through the years, the creations of Walt Disney and Nickelodeon. Perhaps, as in the case of Bambi, such lovable caricatures may engender a desire to know more about the real animal and care for its wellbeing.
The beaver has played a major role in North American history, transforming Native cultures from simple hunting and gathering into sad shadows of their former selves as the fur trade fueled appetites for alcohol and western industrial products. For the most part, Native Americans sought the basics, food and shelter. Western man was motivated by acquisitiveness.
The author William Faulkner promoted the concept of the America as a Second Eden, a paradise where western man might have a second chance to do things better than he had in the past. However, mankind’s darker side resurfaced, manifesting itself through the twin evils of destruction of the natural world and the enslavement and persecution of his fellows.
Native populations were either marginalized or eliminated altogether by a combination of infectious disease and genocide, and one species after another suffered extinction or near extinction from the grasp of an ever more ravenous mob of alien invaders as forests were felled and waterways were contaminated.
The ingenious beaver suffered more than most. The near destruction of the beaver population by western man is symptomatic of his overall destructive attitude and careless disregard for the long term consequences of his activities. Between 1700 and 1770, the United Kingdom exported 21,000,000 hats made from the pelts of North American beavers. The beaver nearly went the way of the passenger pigeon.
It is estimated that at the time of European invasion, there may have been as many as 120 million beaver ponds throughout North America. The beavers’ intricately constructed dams and lodges provided safety from predators, shelter from all kinds of weather and a place to store food. Beavers’ favorite foods consist of the inner layer, or cambium, of the bark of aspen, willow and cottonwood trees. Their niche on the food chain was never a safe one, as bears, coyotes and wolves made a habit of eating them. But only humans posed a threat to their very existence.
Native Americans did make use of beaver fur for items of clothing, but the beaver population remained relatively stable until the arrival of white European invaders. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the beaver population was decimated in order to satisfy the insatiable appetite for beaver hats, robes and other articles craved by European fops and dandies. Native Americans were naively complicit in the destruction of the beaver population, exchanging pelts for firearms, metal tools, alcohol and other trade goods.
All was not well on the European end of the beaver trade. When men’s beaver hats needed cleaning, for instance, after becoming targets of road apples flung by small boys called street urchins in the Sherlock Holmes stories, hatters used mercury to repair the damage. Inhalation of mercury fumes destroyed brain cells, causing erratic behaviors that gave our language the phrase “mad as a hatter”.
While the lives and exploits of Canadian Voyageurs and western mountain men have been extolled in books and movies, cruel realities lurk beneath the glamour. Beavers and other fur bearing animals suffered long hours of agony in the jaws of steel leg hold traps. Trappers routinely took it a step farther, destroying beaver lodges and dismantling dams, depriving their prey of the water they require for safety. Water is the beaver’s natural element, but they are clumsy and nearly helpless on land, where trappers pursued them with spears and clubs. The steam rising from beaver lodges during freezing winter days were dead giveaways, and beavers suffered as a result.
Rivalry between British and French traders spurred violent clashes between Native American nations such as the Iroquois. Some peoples, like the Erie, after whom one of our Great Lakes is named, were totally annihilated. International tensions were exacerbated by the continued unlawful presence of British fur trading posts on US soil, from Michilimackinac on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the sites of present day Sandusky and Toledo, Ohio, and finally exploded into war in 1812.
Reports of vast beaver colonies in the mountain West by the Lewis and Clark Expedition caused mountain men to flock into as yet unexplored territories to profit from the fur trade. Native peoples of the Great Plains, unlike eastern nations, subsisted on bison hunting and looked askance at trapping beaver. The Blackfoot nation, for instance, banned beaver trapping because dams provided water that attracted bison and other game animals.
There were some voices of dissent. Henry David Thoreau charged that the destruction of the beaver population of New England had emasculated the region. Such protests fell largely upon deaf ears until the beaver population tipped on the edge of extinction. As beaver populations declined, the cost of clothing manufactured from their hides became prohibitively expensive, and European enthusiasm turned to other products, like Chinese silk. The system of National Wildlife Refuges established during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt, together with legislation like the Lacey Act outlawing the transportation of poached wildlife across state lines caused the beaver population to begin a slow but steady recovery during the early twentieth century.
The beaver population of North America has rebounded, and it is estimated that there may be as many as 15,000,000 now, compared to the all time low of perhaps 100,000 in 1900. In the West, wetlands account for only 2% of the land area but support 80% of the biodiversity. Organizations like the Wyoming Wetlands Society capture and relocates beavers. Activists have successfully resettled over 250. According to a 2011 report, restoring beavers to the Southwest’s Escalante River would create tens of millions of dollars in annual benefits. Beavers preserve water and mitigate the effects of droughts. Their activities foster healthy wetlands that attract waterfowl and wildlife. Because their dam building efforts are so relentless, however, many westerners continue to regard them as pests and attempt to eradicate them.
Because of the human penchant for rapacity and shortsightedness, the Age of Extinction did not end with the recovery of beaver populations or even with the resurgence of threatened gray wolves, grizzly bears or the American eagle. Now, in the Anthropocene Era, numbers of many species are dwindling, from monarch butterflies and honey bees to majestic African elephants, the magnificent Siberian tiger and the beautiful Himalayan snow leopard.
Perhaps, though, the beaver will have the last laugh. He remains one of nature’s most determined architects, and he is the national symbol of Canada. One beaver dam in Alberta is 1/2 mile wide and can be observed from outer space. Ipana toothpaste may be long forgotten, but one can imagine Bucky chortling over the successes of his offspring.