It must have been a bizarre sight: Beavers in boxes parachuting down into Idaho's Frank Church — River of No Return Wilderness Area. They were on a mission: Build dams and create habitats for other species, such as deer, elk and moose.
In a 1950s film from Idaho Department of Fish and Game, a narrator describes the scene: Beavers are loaded two at a time into drop boxes and loaded into a plane.
"The plane makes a careful approach, ready for the drop," the narrator says. "Now into the air and down they swing, down to the ground near a stream or a lake."
The boxes open and nature's engineers waddle away.
For years, people have talked about the program. In the 1940s and '50s, Idaho Department of Fish and Game captured "problem beavers" — those that were destroying private property — and moved them to areas where they could do some good, department spokesman Mike Keckler said. The department has now released footage from it, called "Fur for the Future."
"We believe it was successful," Keckler told The Washington Post. "But it was a unique approach to wildlife management to say the least."
Time magazine reported on beaver distribution in Idaho back in 1939. The Interior Department had been catching them and releasing them on eroded land that needed their dam-building skills. The cost? $8 per beaver. The reward: $300 worth of labor.
"The value of the North American beaver," the article said, "lies as much in his teeth and his temperament as in his fur."
But after World War II, beavers became a problem. People started to move to McCall, Idaho — once a timber town wrapped around Payette Lake that had been home to beavers. Soon, the critters were on property gnawing on trees and damming up rivers and streams, Keckler said. Conservation officers decided to move them to a spot in Idaho backcountry, but it was almost inaccessible.
Cue the parachuting beavers.
It all started in 1948 with a conservation officer named Elmo Heter and a beaver he fittingly named Geronimo.
Boise State Public Radio reported that Heter came up with the concept. He designed a wooden box, complete with air holes, that would pop open when it hit the ground. He collected leftover parachutes from WWII. And soon Geronimo was airborne.
"Geronimo went through a series of tests to see how this plan would work," Steve Liebenthal, who was with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, told the radio station.
According to Boise State Public Radio:
Heter dropped Geronimo on a landing field, over and over and over again. Each time, Geronimo popped out of the box, was caught by handlers, and put back inside for another ride. Once Heter was satisfied, it was time to put his plan into action. And Geronimo’s reward for all his hard work was to be the first male beaver on a first class seat on a plane to the Chamberlain Basin.
Seventy-five more beavers followed Geronimo, Keckler confirmed.
Decades later, only the rumors remained. The video, it seemed, had been long lost — mislabeled and misplaced, Keckler said.
Idaho Department of Fish and Game Historian Sharon Clark recently found it, with help from the Idaho Historical Society, according to Boise Public Radio. The Society had it digitized and it was made public earlier this week — reigniting excitement over Idaho's parachuting beavers.
Apparently Idaho Department of Fish and Game still relocates beavers, but their days of extreme adventure are behind them.
“Yes, we still do some trapping and relocating of beavers," Steve Nadeau, with the department, told Boise Public Radio. "We haven’t done airplane drops for 50 plus years, but it apparently worked pretty well back then to reestablish them in remote places."
“We also have beaver problems," he added, "so we’re trapping them from where they’re causing problems and taking them where we want them to go.”