Beaver Continues to Dine on Tidal Basin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 1999; Page A1
The tree-toppling beaver of the Tidal Basin was still at large last night after felling four more trees. The timber toll now stands at nine since last Thursday, and National Park Service officials say they are looking for a humane way to try to trap the animal.
The beaver has downed four cherry trees and five white cedars and has gnawed deep valleys into four large cherry trees, most likely killing them, too, said Park Service spokesman Earle Kittleman.
"I think we are at the point of calling this animal a tree predator," he said last night. "He is one very evasive and wily creature."
The beaver, believed to be a male and working alone, has been alternately hitting several trees a night or doing no noticeable damage at all.
Although beavers frequent the Potomac River basin, no one can remember one living in the Tidal Basin until last year, when the first trees were damaged, Kittleman said.
The beaver-vs.-tree issue has the Park Service in a difficult position. The internationally recognized cherry tree grove is now at its annual peak, and the Park Service spends a great deal of money to protect the more than 3,000 flowering trees. However, it also is required to protect the animals of the park as well.
Park Service staff are convinced that a beaver, not a human, is the predator because the trees have been chewed, not chopped. And each of the felled trees had the telltale pointy stump, always an indication of beaver activity.
The Park Service plan, under discussion since Friday, is to obtain a humane trap, catch the beaver alive and then turn it loose in a new home, a long way from the cherry trees. As of last night, a suitable trap had not been found. Kittleman said the Park Service has been overwhelmed with media attention about the beaver. Biology technician Julia Long, who is responsible for securing a trap, had a full slate of interviews yesterday, delaying her efforts to determine which trap is the most humane.
Long told Kittleman she had spotted the beaver swimming in the Tidal Basin yesterday.
Experts on beavers said this one is probably a 2-year-old that recently left the home nest and is checking out the Tidal Basin as a place to start a new colony. Beavers usually live in burrows built below the waterline and construct dams as a way to maintain the water level above the opening of the den.
Harry Hodgeon, a wildlife biologist who wrote his PhD dissertation on beavers, said the creatures are social and very family-oriented.
"They raise a litter each year and keep the young at home for two years, so there are multiple generations living together," he said. "They participate in activities together such as gathering food and building the dam. They do lots of learning as a family."
Hodgeon said beavers tend to keep the same partners for life unless there is a loss, and then a new partner will be sought.
He said the Tidal Basin certainly is an attractive place for a beaver.
"There's lots of nice food right there, all those new cherry trees," he said.
Outside the federal parks, beavers are sometimes seen as pests that not only damage trees and crops but alter the flow of streams with their dams. Their numbers are growing across the country. Unlike Park Service officials, private property owners don't have to concern themselves with humane trapping.
James B. Armstrong, extension wildlife scientist for Auburn University, wrote in a paper on beaver control in that state that the "most prudent approach to controlling [beaver] damage problems is an annual harvest. ... Considering the recreational aspects of trapping, the income potential and the edible meat, the beaver is an animal that lends itself to population control through trapper harvest."
So far, the Tidal Basin beaver has not been able to begin a dam because the Park Service crews swoop in as soon as a downed tree is found and take it away. They also chop the tree stump to the ground so visitors won't trip over it.
Kittleman said there would be no special precautions taken last night to protect the trees, because the beaver has about 300 acres to roam looking for an appealing tree and there is no way to patrol such a large area.
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