The Rich History of Beaver Dams

The Rich History of Beaver Dams

Beavers have been an important source of fur and food for thousands of years in North America. They were highly valued by Native Americans, colonial trappers and American mountain men. Even as demand for their fur has plummeted in modern times, beavers have continued shaping the landscape throughout North America. In fact, beavers alter their environments more than any other creature except for man. But whereas many of our modifications on the landscape tend to degrade wildlife habitat, beavers usually improve it. They are responsible for creating important habitat for waterfowl, moose, deer, fish, furbearers, and a host of other wildlife.

My finest hidden brook trout spots in Colorado are wilderness beaver ponds. Growing up in Pennsylvania, small rural beaver ponds were a sure bet for reliable wood duck hunting.  This fall I hope to tag my first Colorado moose; if do draw that tag, I’ll be looking for them in habitat created by beaver dams.
But I’ve got to admit I didn’t really consider beavers themselves a source of food or fur until after being exposed to Steve’s intense interest in them.

That sparked my own interest in hunting beavers. Luckily, although leg hold and killing traps beavers have been illegal in Colorado for a while due to a misguided voter referendum it is legal to hunt them here.  Over the years, while guiding fly fishing trips on the Colorado River, I consistently saw beavers in the same locations time and again. This past fall, I took advantage of their propensity to stay in the same area and killed a large beaver next to a dam in a side channel. I braised the quarters and sent the hide off to be made into mittens for my wife.

Still, the number of people that target beavers these days is a far cry from the days of the Hudson Bay and American Fur Companies and it seems that today many beavers are building directly over their ancestors’ dam sites.  Some of these dams were around when the beaver fur trade was the driving force behind the western world’s economy and the expanding frontier.

Researchers in Michigan studying old maps confirmed that some current and active dam sites are over 150 years old. There’s also carbon dating evidence in California indicating beavers have been using the same dam sites for as long as 1000 years. The next time you cast a fly into a beaver pond or cross a beaver dam to reach a downed duck or, perhaps, to hoist a beaver out of the water, take the time to consider the rich history that lies beneath that pile of sticks and mud. An ancient hunter or intrepid colonial trapper may have stood in the same place, surveying the landscape with the intention of securing a good meal.

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