Beavers lay in winter buffet

Posted: Friday, November 24, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Beavers had been chewing up the birch and willow along Campbell Creek at a frenetic pace, knocking down trees and spreading cuttings across slushy pans of ice that spread from shore.

Just after a recent snow, their most intense activity appeared to radiate from the beaver lodge itself. On a bend in the creek just below the bridge between a quiet street and an elementary school, a mound of frozen muck and sticks rose amid 22 toppled trees. The scene had all the charm of a logging sort yard.

Several trees were submerged in fresh ice just offshore, trunks pointing skyward. Other branches and cuttings floated, caught in the slush, or formed a thatch just beneath the surface.

If chilled tree cambium titillates your taste buds, it would look like a hearty feast. And for one family of beavers, that was the point.

Like their brothers and sisters in wilder places, urban beavers along Campbell Creek and other Anchorage waterways have been spending the October-November countdown to freeze-up urgently building food caches in deeper water.

''Right now, they're really going at it,'' said biologist Mark Keech with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. ''Usually we get a lot of calls this time of year. They're going to put away about six months of willow bushes to eat, or ornamental trees.''

Most wild animals solve the problem of winter survival in Anchorage by avoidance. They migrate out or they snooze. But the hardy and the shrewd have developed effective food-gathering strategies that carry them until spring.

Wily ravens work the trash bins and parking lots for scraps, while small birds search frantically for seeds. Moose convert summer bingeing into fat, then browse groves of dwarfish trees in the parks. Squirrels stash bushels of cones. Voles forage through a network of tunnels in the world between ground and snowpack.

Beavers are far more direct.

''Typically, they'll cut down a bunch of trees and drag them into the water and pile them up in front of the lodge,'' Keech said. After the ice forms, they have a winter's supply of food just a 15-foot swim from home, he said.

But the technique isn't foolproof. If they run out -- or the creek freezes solid -- then the beavers must dig out and start foraging again during the heart of winter. In the wild, such beavers often become prey for wolverines or other predators. In Anchorage, they might just starve, Keech said.

But beavers don't always emerge because they must.

''It's pretty common in the winter for beavers to come out on top of the ice and cut down some fresh stuff,'' Keech said. ''If a tree lays under the water for three months, it evidently doesn't taste good. They really like some fresh stuff.''

An estimated 150 beavers live in or near the Anchorage Bowl, mostly along Campbell and Ship creeks. So far in 2000, state biologists have issued 10 permits to trap beavers whose dam building or tree cutting threatened property. But within greenbelts and parks, Anchorage beavers mostly are left alone as they impound water and thin the woods.

When a family of beavers dammed Chester Creek near student housing at the University of Alaska Anchorage last summer, biologists and maintenance workers installed pipes to try to keep water levels down. When a UAA beaver was found dead in a trap, state wildlife officers initiated a criminal investigation and posted fliers asking for information.

So far, no one has been arrested in the case, Keech said.

The remaining UAA beavers recently were cutting fresh trees and floating branches in their pond between dormitories.

One beaver splashed dramatically when a human approached its lodge.

But the UAA beavers had nothing on their Campbell Creek cousins across town. Only a few yards east from the roar of rush-hour traffic on the Seward Highway, one tall birch leaned into the dense spruce, its base gnawed down to a yellow cone. Fresh yellow chips littered the ground, still visible through new snow.

A dozen other nearby trees had been toppled, too -- this way, that way, in the water, across the ground. For 100 yards along both banks, more trees had been dropped, their trunks already scalloped with neat rectangular tooth marks. Fresh-cut sticks balanced on the hardening slush.

For these beavers, months of tasty munching lay ahead under the ice.



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