GRAND MARAIS, MINN. – Chew on this:
A battle against beavers is brewing in this Lake Superior town where, in recent years, the bucktoothed critters have been breeding, building a lodge in the marina and biting trees into pencil-shaped stumps all over the city.
This fall, the beavers may have become a little too eager. Under the cover of night, they crossed bustling Hwy. 61 and gnawed down birch, poplar, mountain ash and even someone’s apple tree.
“When we started losing trees up across the road,” city Parks Manager Dave Tersteeg said with a shake of his head, “I thought, ‘Nothing is safe.’ ”
So the city has been hurriedly armoring tree trunks with chicken wire and strategizing at council meetings about their furry foes’ fate.
At a meeting last month, City Councilor Kelly Swearingen asked how many trees must be wrapped before the city deals directly with the beavers.
“I think we need to do something,” she said. “They need to go.”
“It looks like a moonscape,” noted Mayor Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux, describing a ravaged spot along the shore to his colleagues. “Those beavers have cut down everything.”
Tersteeg, on a recent tour of the beavers’ handiwork, pointed to several nibbled stumps left in the Grand Marais Recreation Area’s campground.
One was a mature maple felled by beavers over the course of a couple weeks in November, he said. Another, teeth marks still fresh, was a mountain ash. Crafty beavers somehow split open its protective wire cage to get the wood.
This past fall, several campers reported hearing gnawing while they slept, Tersteeg said. A few even heard a tree crashing down.
Falling trees “are a bit of a liability,” DeCoux said. “So we want to make sure we don’t have a lot of that happening.”
Beavers have become so brazen — or maybe desperate for wood — that one estimated at weighing 40 to 50 pounds was hit on the highway.
Beavers have long made northern Minnesota their home. The Ojibwe started trapping them centuries ago, and French Canadian voyageurs later traded goods for their pelts. As in other areas around the continent, they were hunted so intensively that they almost disappeared from the region.
Thanks to restoration efforts, beavers are back and thriving, flooding wetlands in some areas and causing problems in others.
So what is a small scenic city to do?
Trap and relocate them?
Not a good option, even if it sounds humane, responded Nancy Hansen, area wildlife manager for the state Department of Natural Resources.
“Beavers are very organized animals,” Hansen said. “They’ve got their food caches set up, they’ve got their access to their lodge set up. They have all their reserves they need to get through the winter.”
Property owners can legally trap or shoot destructive beavers on their land, a DNR website explains.
Leave them alone?
“Just as many people who think that these guys are nuisances think that they’re pretty sweet,” DeCoux said recently while looking over a beaver lodge near the shore.
“I don’t think they should kill innocent animals for doing what they do,” said lifelong Grand Marais resident Rebecca Frost. “I mean, it’s part of nature.”
But others view beavers as overgrown rats, taking down decades-old trees in a matter of minutes.
If people want to keep those trees, “common sense says you’ve just got to get rid of them, and if there’s only one way to do it, too bad for them,” said local resident Roger Westerlind. Caging trees seems like a waste of taxpayer money, he said.
The irony, said Grand Marais resident Mark Pedersen, is that one of the beaver’s few predators is the wolf. And though more wolves now roam northern Minnesota, they aren’t likely to come through town to get to the harbor.
So Pedersen suggested another idea: Wait the pests out.
“The beaver, if it runs out of a food source, they’ll move out,” he said.
Can’t we all get along?
For now, Tersteeg and his crews have been carefully caging the beavers’ favorite softwood trees as well as some hardwoods, knowing the animals are getting more aggressive on their hunt for wood. Wire cages aren’t pretty, he acknowledged, but maybe they could become an educational talking point to visitors.
Tourists are often delighted to see the whiskers and flat tails of beavers poke through the surface in the harbor, he said.
In place of trees lost, he said, crews are planting more pine and spruce and balsam, knowing beavers don’t typically target conifers.
Over the winter, the hostilities might see a hiatus. Beavers typically eat cached branches and twigs through the coldest months and won’t likely venture far from the safety of their lodges. But at winter’s end, Tersteeg and others said, beavers are likely to come out extra-hungry. Townspeople will be watching for signs of new wreckage.
DeCoux said he hopes they can all figure out a way to coexist in his North Shore city.
“If this is a big problem for us,” he said with a chuckle “then we’re doing OK.”