A war of wits

simone ponne/news
Maurice Jenkins uses two kinds of traps, conibear and leghold, to catch and kill beavers; (below) stainless steel tags are used to track beavers.
By Phil Melnychuk
Staff Reporter

Out on the polder, down in the ditches and along the dikes of Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge, the battle of wits wears on.
It's a contest that begins every fall as trapping season opens and municipalities try to protect their dikes and drainage systems from beavers who have their own ideas about civil engineering.
"They are cagey little buggers" said Maurice Jenkins.
"They have quite an ability to learn."
The past three years, Jenkins has been hired by the District of Pitt Meadows to remove the furry creatures to keep them from clogging ditches, eroding dikes and plugging pump stations -- the vital systems that protect homes and businesses.
Like perpetually unsatisfied homeowners, beavers are constantly fixing their dams and lodges, improving the structures, renovating the interiors and chewing on new construction materials.
Unfortunately, they pay for their industriousness with their lives.
So far this year, Jenkins has trapped about 15 beavers.
Live trapping, which involves a large, suitcase-like trap that encloses the animal, isn't feasible because of the time involved and hazard to people.
Relocating beavers doesn't work, either, because it creates a cascade effect, displacing other beavers in the constant struggle for food and shelter.
So Jenkins and other trappers rely on two devices, both certified as humane.
His first choice is the conibear trap - a rat-trap-type device that snaps the neck or spine. Death is instant.
He'll use that wherever he can, providing it doesn't endanger people or animals.
The backup is the leghold trap, which has jaws just strong enough to hold the animal. It's often used in water with a drowning cable.
"That sounds very deadly and not very humane - but, in fact, semi-aquatic animals see the water as an escape," explains Jenkins.
When the beaver's leg is caught, it will dive or sink to the bottom. Carbon dioxide builds up in it bloods and it dies.
Jenkins said the whole design of the leghold trap is to minimize damage to the animal.
"If you crush the leg or cause real severe pain - the animal's going to fight that." Crushing or injuring a leg would cause the animal to struggle and likely escape - and require starting all over again trying to find a trap-wise animal.
"If you have damaged the animal in the process, then you have actually failed.
"I want the animal to die instantly and as painlessly as possible."
And 99.95 per cent of the time, he said it happens that way.
Sometimes, despite being held in the trap by just one of it claws, the beaver can't escape.
Jenkins is careful where he locates the devices, often setting a trap in the evening then picking it up before daybreak. Traps are put in spots where people and their pets don't go, such as the bottom of a steep bank.
"So far as I know, I've never caught a dog or cat in my traps."
Special tools are required to release his traps, he points out.
However, Duanne Vandenberg of the Pitt Polder Preservation Society sees no reason for killing beavers.
"We've always been against it. We see no reason for it.
"I think it's a horrible way to make a living in this day and age."
The leghold trap is banned in parts of Europe, she said.
"It's still a cruel thing, despite all their claims to the contrary," she said of trappers.
Instead, live traps could be used to relocate the beavers, while ditches could be cleaned more often to discourage them, she said.
But former Pitt Meadows councillor Sieb Swierstra, former chair of the Lower Mainland municipal diking commission, says trapping needs to be increased. "They have not looked after the diking system adequately here."
Often beavers will burrow from one side of a dike to the other. Checking the dikes and removing beavers is a constant duty, he said.
Beaver populations, like bears, are at the saturation point in the Lower Mainland, costing municipalities hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs, said Jack Evans, senior biologist with the Ministry of Environment, fish and wildlife.
There's lots of riparian habitat and there's just lots for them to eat, he said.
Now in his 60s, Jenkins has been trapping for 50 years and works for several municipalities, from Whistler to Hope. Since the start of the month, he's caught 15 beavers in Pitt Meadows.
Usually, he takes between 20 and 30 animals a season.
It is a war of wits.
In one nearby golf course, beavers calmly go about their business alongside employees of the golf course.
"If I show up, they smell me and they disappear for a week," Jenkins says.
Fall is when the animals have their best coat on. The furs are either auctioned off or sold to artisans for use in handicrafts. Sometimes he gives the meat to gun clubs, where its used for annual dinners. He also freezes it for dog food.
"At this time of year, it would be a crime not to retain the pelt and sell it," Jenkins said.
Sometimes, it's possible, if a nearby landowner wishes, to take defensive measures against beavers, such as armouring tree trunks with wire or covering them with sand and gravel-embedded paint.
If there's a way to stop the flow of water, the beavers won't be enticed to build a dam.
"You do whatever you can. If you can't do something like that, then you have to take the beastie."
Putting up with them can get expensive.
They'll munch on blueberry bushes, which doesn't endear them to farmers.
They'll tackle big cottonwood trees 45 centimetres across and bring them down with their two front teeth.
In the fall and spring, when beaver families disperse and younger ones strike out on their own, the population covers yet a wider area.
"And they're just as industrious as beavers are reported to be and they start building homes," Jenkins said.
"You can only have so many beavers before there are no more trees."
According to Jenkins, some of the worst areas - or one of the best, from a beaver's point of view - is near the pump stations along the Pitt River, and on either side of Harris Road in the polder, north of Dewdney Trunk Road.
Jenkins does much of his work for homeowners who often are delighted when a beaver first shows up.
The romance is often short lived, though.
After weeks or months of having their lawn flooded by a nearby dam, or their shrubs or trees turned into beaver dinner, residents will call Jenkins.
"It's not uncommon for the beaver to come and watch them tear it out - then immediately restart building it," while the property owner watches, Jenkins said.
What's a beaver's favourite type of tree?
Jenkins pauses a second.
"The one in your back yard."

Originally published in Maple Ridge News.

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