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The Big Chew

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Published on: Jan. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

them to suitable, but empty, habitat.

Once reintroduced, beavers took off like a Cape Canaveral rocket. In 1948, there were an estimated 301 colonies statewide; only six years later the number had jumped to nearly 6,000.

Beavers are rodents, as are Norway rats and squirrels. Beavers have an average of four young once a year. Their lifespan is about a dozen years. Most of it is spent in water.

A beaver can stay underwater for minutes at a time-some researchers have timed beavers submerged for more than 15 minutes. The animal has large lungs, obviously, and an oversized liver, which stores oxygenated blood. A beaver's heartbeat actually slows down underwater to make more efficient use of its stored oxygen.

Historically, beavers were abundant everywhere. Naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton estimated the presettlement population at six million, though his figure could have been no more than a wild guess. Regardless, there were plenty of beavers.

Beaver hats were the rage in the early 1800s. The fur was combed and kneaded into felt that was blocked into a high hat. Beaver high hats lasted until 1840, when the silk top hat came along.

Beaver coats were (and are) warm and comfortable. Sheared beaver fur cuts weight, but preserves the warmth. Missouri beaver fur doesn't grow long enough for shearing and pelts are used for hats or, in periods of long-fur popularity, coats.

The beaver was the coin of early America, more so than gold itself. In 1763, the trading post established by Pierre Laclede and August Chouteau at present-day St. Louis was the world's largest fur collection point.

The Hudson's Bay Company and other early trading outfits (including Missouri's own St. Louis Fur Company) set up outposts to outfit fur trappers as the trappers followed beaver populations across the country, hunting the animals to extinction, then moving on.

Sewell Newhouse invented the steel trap in 1823, giving trappers a potent weapon that was far superior to deadfalls, snares and other relatively primitive methods of taking furbearers.

Trapping was big business. One expedition in 1823-24 consisted of 55 men, 25 women and 64 children. They had 75 guns, 212 beaver traps and 332 horses, plus ammunition, clothing and trading goods.

About 20 were actual trappers. The expedition traveled more than 1,300 miles to reach trapping grounds. The trappers accounted for 5,000 beavers.

Trapping was a harsh and dangerous life, but the rewards were irresistible; a good trapper could make more than $15 a day, compared with a half-dollar a day working on a farm.

Fur prices always have fluctuated. In the 1820s, a beaver pelt might bring $16 (in today's money, that would be much more). By Audubon's time (1843), pelts were worth $5-$7 each. By World War I (when beavers were extinct in Missouri), a pelt was worth $8-$10, but by the early 1920s, they fetched $16. Pelts brought as much as $100 before the Depression of the 1930s.

In 1995, beaver pelts brought a skimpy $7, but demand soared in 1996 and prices jumped to $15 to $30. Fur prices are volatile. Beaver fur value tends to follow mink, the glamour fur.

Fur always will have a place in society, despite groups that lobby against trapping and use of fur. China and the former Soviet bloc still are fur markets, as is the United States.

And beavers more than most animals contribute both to our comfort and our landscape. They may not always do their timbering the way we want it done, but one thing is certain: the beaver isn't going to change.

So we'll travel together along history's path, beavers busily chewing, humans alternately cussing and praising the busy big rat with the orange teeth.

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