By Jill J Easton
Beavers and otters can quickly turn a thriving stream, pond or lake into a water wasteland. This may seem an odd combination, a plant eater and a fish-eating mammal, but either of these can wreak havoc on your water in a matter of days.
“Help us,” Paula Dirkers sounded like she was near tears. “Beavers have colonized Moccasin Creek and are cutting down the trees. “Can you come trap them? Come right now.”
The next day, Jim set several big conibear traps and a number of snares in and along the banks of the creek. One of the steel traps was set at the hole in the bank that led to their den, another was in the feed lot in a backwater of the stream where the beavers kept bark covered sticks and other groceries for a quick munch. He didn’t set any of the leg-hold traps on land to keep from hurting wandering dogs. The snares were located on trails and slides that the big animals had worn along the edge of the water way.
Not only were the beavers cutting down trees and eroding the bank with holes, they also constructed a constantly growing dam made up of trees, muck, switch cane and anything else they could find. The blockade would soon turn the pretty creek into a muddy pond that would flood the surrounding land and make erosion worse.
After two days of empty traps and knocked down snares, Jim caught a big female and two yearling offspring the same night. Evidently papa beaver had experience with traps, he abandoned the family and skedaddled back for the White River. It’s been three months now and the Dirkers have had no more problems with beaver. But they will.
Every year in Ozarks streams, ponds and rivers hundreds of beavers are raised, there is only so much land for each new couple to colonize. They are forced by the dominant males into the smaller streams and ponds to find a home.
They start out as cute flat-tailed animals, but cute doesn’t last long. They thrive on a low nutrition diet of bark, forbes and grasses; they often grow to 80 or 90 pounds. They have thick skin, their eyes are protected underwater by a translucent nictitating membrane, they have a dense, almost waterproof, undercoat and guard hairs that glisten in the sunlight.
When I sent Paula pictures of the three dead beaver on the truck tailgate, she was not happy.
“I don’t mind them being dead, but I really didn’t want to see them,” Paula said. “I wish you hadn’t shown me pictures.”
This was not an unusual situation, many people want their wildlife problems solved, but they don’t want to know the details, or that nuisance animals must die. Most ask if we could turn the sweet little beaver loose someplace else. The answer is always, No. Relocating wildlife like beaver and otter just puts the problem in someone else’s back yard.
Repeat after me, Nature isn’t nice. Animals die and kill each other and it usually is an unpleasant, bloody death. We are part of nature and I promise and swear, trappers are much more humane than bobcats, coyotes, bears or puma. The rant is over.
River otters are sly, successful fish, frog and crawfish eating machines. The bad news is that a pond owner may find his pond emptied of fish and never know a traveling otter was the problem. Once you watch an otter throwing fish after fish up on the bank, come up, take a single bite and go back and catch another. Soon the pond is a vast empty bowl and the landowner has lost hundreds of dollars of fish. Like many other predators, killing is fun for them.
Otter are built for swimming, with a streamlined body, short legs with webbed feet, dense dark fur that keeps the animal warm, a tapered tail, small ears, and nostrils that can close underwater. River otter grow to be more than three feet long, from nose to tail, and can weigh more than 30 pounds. Although otters are usually solitary, females stay with their pups for about a year until the young ones learn fishing and hunting skills. Mom and pups are awesomely cute together, but they are also awesomely dangerous when threatened. Adults often eat 25% of their body weight daily.
“An otter will only stick around long enough to clean out all the edibles out of a pond,” said Jim Spencer, my husband, a veteran trapper and author of Guide to Trapping. “Then it’ll head out in search of fishier waters.”
Because of their dense fur otters, like beaver, were trapped almost to extinction in many areas. They have made a remarkable comeback due to good wildlife management and relocation to areas where these large members of the weasel family were extirpated.
Missouri is one of the states that had an otter reintroduction that started back in the early 1980’s. Today they have a thriving population of otter in many parts of the state and the kind of problems that come with fish-eating predators.
“The landowners probably won’t see an otter, but it’s easy to tell when one moves into a pond,” Jim said. “There will be whole fish, fish heads, bones and crawfish parts along the sides of the pond and piles of otter scat will be found on logs, rocks and points.”
Otter droppings are easy to recognize, they contain fish scales, bones and crawfish shell bits. Raccoon scat may be located in the same areas, but they will also contain seeds and fruit parts.
Help is available
Both beaver and otter are managed by your state’s wildlife agency. Most states offer tools and people to help deal with these problems. When beaver or otter show up, your first call should be to your state wildlife office.
Every state offers some help with nuisance animals. If the state doesn’t have trappers on their staff, they will usually have a list of local trappers who can handle the problem. Even during winter when fur has some value, a nuisance trapper will require payment since a skinned, fleshed and stretched beaver only brings about $5 and an otter $20-40.
Most states require that the landowner have a depredation permit in hand unless it is trapping season and some states require licensing or training before setting traps. Always check with your state’s wildlife agency before taking action.
To keep ponds, rivers and lakes healthy a land owner needs to regularly visit and study the water and banks. Checking your pond once or twice a year isn’t enough. If the Dirkers hadn’t been hands-on land managers they could have had a much bigger problem and major tree damage. Be there often and be aware.