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The Big Chew

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Published on: Jan. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

It was the mid-1950s. My father came home from the farm one day fuming. Beavers had plugged up a culvert drain and flooded the road and the adjacent field. He cussed out those beavers despite the fact that once, as a perfume oils salesman, he had made money off the beaver's castor gland oil.

"Castoreum," the oil, fixes any added fragrance and releases it gradually when warmed by the body-a perfect attribute for a perfume. Castoreum also has been used in folk medicine to cure colic, arthritis and other body aches. Another use is as an attractant scent by trappers.

Beavers are one of Missouri's most common and least visible animals. Every Missouri outdoor type has seen beaver cuttings, but few have seen the critter behind the toothmarks. Beavers are wary and often work at night. The late Conservation Department photographer Don Wooldridge spent a number of sleepless nights trying to photograph beavers who always were a jump ahead of his camera shutter.

Yet beavers can be tolerant of a motionless human if they don't catch the human scent. Wading anglers often have beavers swim by them as they fish a stream.

It would be hard to describe a beaver as intelligent. "Plodding" and "dogged" spring more quickly to mind. Beavers have a single-minded determination to do what beavers do, and they figure out ways to get it done. There is some ingenuity, but mostly it's persistence.

A beaver doesn't know (nor care) what damage to property a dam or a fallen tree will do.

Your cherished ornamental is just another building block to Br'er Beaver, and your bottomland cornfield is a potential beaver pond. The pond itself may become an important resting place for waterfowl. Beaver ponds change an entire ecosystem, eliminating some species, encouraging others.

A beaver has to chew. Their four front gnawing teeth constantly grow, and they must wear them down by chewing. The outer part of the gnawing tooth is a hard, bright orange enamel, while the inner part is softer and wears away quicker, giving the tooth a chisel-shape. Lower teeth work against the uppers, a self sharpening feature.

An adult beaver can weigh from 40 to 60 pounds, largest of North American rodents. Missouri claims one of the largest beavers ever caught, an animal of nearly 100 pounds caught in 1960, but a Wisconsin trapper caught one in 1921 that weighed 110 pounds.

A beaver has a scaly flat tail that serves as a rudder while swimming and a prop while the beaver chips at a tree. Beaver tail was considered a delicacy in the pioneer stewpot, but the edibility of beaver meat depends on which chef you talk to.

Most wild game cookbooks don't list beaver recipes. Cy Littlebee's Guide to Cooking Fish and Game, available from the Conservation Department's Nature Shop, has two.

"Cy," the alter ego of author Werner Nagel, did not say he had eaten beaver meat, and both recipes are cautious about the taste, as if the authors were hesitant to commit themselves. Charley and Libby Schwartz, authors of the definitive Wild Mammals of Missouri, say only that "the flesh is tasty."

Former Conservation Department furbearer biologist Dave Erickson has eaten beaver meat. He describes it as "red, delicate, kind of sweet-tasting." The closest he could come to a domestic comparison was corned beef. A Conservation Department publication on beavers by a wildlife damage control agent contains a wealth of information on the animals and ways to cook the meat.

People exterminated beavers in Missouri by 1915. Think of it! A furbearer as common today as any was absolutely gone from the state. In 1928-29, the old Game and Fish Department stocked six pairs of northern beavers in Dent County, and by the mid-1930s those had increased to an estimated 75 to 100. Some northern beavers moved into northwest Missouri while others may have moved into the southwest part of the state.

But Rudolf Bennitt and Werner Nagel seemed pessimistic in a historic survey of wildlife in 1934. Bennitt was a University of Missouri professor; Nagel was his student.

Bennitt and Nagel reported fewer than 200 beavers in Missouri in the mid-1930s and, though they didn't say so, you get the feeling they believed beavers would never again be more than a curiosity, a museum creature.

Beaver restoration began with painful slowness. It was 20 years before my father cussed out that Chariton County family of beavers. Beavers were protected then, though a beleaguered landowner could get permission to trap nuisance beavers after 1945.

My father never bothered. He ripped out the dam; the beavers built it back. They carried on a running battle for some months, and I think my father finally discouraged the beavers and they moved elsewhere.

Beavers thrived under the same trap-and-transplant program that restored deer and wild turkeys in Missouri. The Conservation Department trapped surplus animals from 1939 to 1955 and relocated 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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