A big rodent with an engineering aptitude. A water gopher that eats trees. A potential fur hat that builds houses.
Those incongruous traits combine in the beaver, one of Alaska's most interesting and influential animals.
"They are fun to watch," said Kenai resident Carol Titus.
For 24 years, she and her family have lived next door to a beaver family. The Tituses operate the Log Cabin Bed and Breakfast on Kalifornsky Beach Road, and beaver watching is one of the main attractions for their guests. Because their beaver pond is next to a well-traveled road, it attracts a lot of attention. The beavers are accustomed to people looking at them and are not shy.
"It's in the Milepost. We get buses and everybody," she said.
Beavers' sophisticated behavior and size set them apart from relatives such as mice and squirrels. They are the largest rodents in North America, maturing at about 40 to 70 pounds, about as heavy as a retriever.
Beavers use trees for construction and food.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
Like people, they build homes for their families and manipulate their surroundings to suit their needs. Their famous dams and lumbering activities can change landscapes, converting swift streams to strings of ponds and creating wetland habitat.
Their construction objectives sometimes clash with those of the humans that move into their range.
Titus said the beavers come into their yard at night and cut trees and brush.
"One morning we found a tree that the beavers had cut down. It was about eight to 12 inches thick. The next night it was cut up in about two-foot-long chunks. The next night it was completely gone," she said.
They put wire around the trees they want to keep off-limits.
The Titus family had a front-row seat a few years ago to one of the most common conflicts between beavers and people: culverts.
The Titus family has lived next door to a beaver family for more than two decades.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
Retired biologist Ted Bailey, who used to head wildlife research projects at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said beavers find human roads over creeks make great dams. All they have to do is plug up one hole -- the culvert -- and they get an impressive pond backed up. From the human point of view, the beavers can flood and undermine the roads.
"(The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities) and beavers don't get along very well," Bailey said.
"The road people really dislike beavers. They like to block culverts."
The beavers next door to Tituses decided to raise the level of their lower pond and began damming up around the culvert under Kalifornsky Beach Road. For a while, the beavers would plug up the culvert at night and the road crew would clean it out by day, piling the debris up on the bank. At night the beavers would move the pile back into the culvert.
"This went on for several weeks," she recalled.
Then the road crew built a fence around the culvert mouth. The beavers chewed down the fence posts and added them to the dam.
A second fence, with metal posts, led to a temporary truce. The beavers used it as the foundation for a dam somewhat lower than and set back from the culvert.
But eventually the beavers decided to raise the water and the skirmish resumed. The men pumped water out of the pond. They closed the road and installed a second culvert. The beavers plugged that, too.
"Things were really getting serious," Titus said.
"The Department of Fish and Game came out with some live traps and tried to trap the beavers who were causing all the trouble. They did get one small beaver. The older wiser beavers would just trip the traps shut and then sometimes use the traps to help plug the culvert again.
"Our guests were watching all this activity and were betting on the beavers."
Finally the humans gave up on the traps. But the beavers lost out in the end.
The road crew used dynamite to ream out the culvert. Within minutes, the lower pond was drained.
Titus said some of the beavers moved out after that, but one family still remains in the lodge. The Titus family and guests have witnessed remarkable beaver family scenes.
The little ones seldom come out of the lodge. They are so buoyant they have trouble diving and are vulnerable to eagles, she said.
The kits stay with their parents for two years, and part of that time includes schooling in beaver life skills.
"They put holes in the dam and teach the babies how to fill them back up again," she said.
When the young mature, they often disperse and look for places to set up homes of their own. Even adults are willing to relocate. The beavers live 10 to 12 years in the wild and as long as 19 years in captivity.
"Beaver move around quite a bit," Bailey said.
The wildlife refuge surveys beaver lodges within its boundaries, but not on a regular schedule. The last survey was in 1999. No one has estimated how many beavers live on the Kenai Peninsula or in Alaska, he said.
In the 1990s, biologists at the Kenai refuge investigated what the wandering beavers are seeking. They surveyed more than 200 lakes in the refuge to see what types of habitat beavers preferred.
Refuge wildlife biologist Liz Jozwiak and Bailey said beavers prefer a stable water supply in small tributary streams, interconnected lakes or lakes with attached streams. Nearly all the beavers live in lodges, although one or two percent burrow in banks. Their preferred foods are aspen, willow and yellow pond lilies, which they munch in summer like people eat celery.
These food preferences put them in some competition with moose and attracts them to similar places, Bailey noted.
"The 1964 burn (between Swanson River Road and Beaver Creek north of the highway corridor) is probably right now the best habitat for beavers," he said.
Jozwiak recommended that a good place to watch beavers, other than the Log Cabin Bed and Breakfast, is by Kelly and Peterson lakes near the Sterling Highway between Sterling and the Kenai Mountains. She said the beavers have cleared a lot of forest there doing what they do best.
"They've been busy," she said.
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