Perhaps the two most accomplished engineering species on the planet – humans and beavers – recently teamed up just outside Bragg Creek, where their success story is clearly expressed in the product of their labours.
Construction engineer Pierre Bolduc tried, unsuccessfully, to build a dam on his property a few years ago when his sons were in their prime hockey-playing years. He thought the resulting pond could be easily cleared of snow to form a natural skating rink.
With the boys’ help – and a 23-horsepower Kubota tractor-backhoe – he set to work building a dam.
But the weather threw a wrench in his plans as rain flushed away all the hard work he and his sons had finished.
He decided to stop fighting Mother Nature and enlist the help of her industrious construction engineers – and Canada’s national animal.
“It turns out we were the wrong kind of engineers to tackle this,” Bolduc said.
Cue the ‘beavers to the rescue’ music.
As a teenager in rural Quebec, Bolduc learned about beaver trapping from his father, and knew his flat-tailed counterparts were pretty good engineers when it comes to building dams.
But how would he get them where he wanted them, and do what he wanted them to do?
Recalling the skill sets passed onto him by his dad, Bolduc built a trap with parts from his garage (including a spring from an old garage door opener) and set it up on a nearby farmer’s land outside of Bragg Creek.
With five beavers in cages – what he believed to be a complete family – Bolduc then set about placing them strategically on the low-lying area on his land, to hopefully get them to build a dam where he wanted it.
He cut trembling aspen branches of various sizes for a food source and a ready supply of construction material, and hauled the wood to where the beavers could easily access it.
The final stage of his plan was to figure out how to kick-start their construction instincts. He knew from experience that beavers were attracted to the sound of running water, which triggers an alarm system embedded in their DNA to tell them where they need to do repairs.
A CD of the sound of running water did just the trick.
“I took a CD player from a car, one that had a ‘repeat’ function, a car battery, solar panels, and, let’s see what’s going to happen,” he said.
He brought a load of aspen out to the site every day and watched as the beavers got busy, with his support.
“They said, ‘Wow, this is perfect. It’s the Liberal government at work – we’re being fed, we’ve been given the ultimate location, we love it. This is great,’” he said with a laugh.
The results spoke for themselves. The beavers have completely remodeled Bolduc’s backyard, and he likes what they’ve done with the place. A lodge now sits in the middle of the pond their dam formed. Before the beavers came, his best efforts working with his sons had resulted in a puddle the size of his kitchen table.
Both of his boys went on to study engineering, though one has since switched to medicine.
Bolduc’s ‘backyard’ now attracts neighbours and others to come and skate around the lodge, maybe have a fire, and share the beaver pond. Or they have a game of jam-pail curling. Yes – that’s a thing.
Beyond the recreational benefits, the environmental impacts include enhanced habitat for other wildlife like ducks, geese, moose, deer, and elk, which are now appearing in numbers not seen in his little corner of the valley before.
Bolduc said there are knock-on effects that come along with having his furry friends nearby. He feels the results prove that people need to learn to better coexist with beavers.
According to his research, new ponds recharge ground water and can raise the water table, which helps ensure nearby wells will be productive.
And he added that as water becomes more accessible closer to the surface, it may also help forests regenerate themselves.
Wetland ecologist and environmental science professor Kirby England has been studying his favourite species, Castor canadensis, for seven years at Lethbridge College. He has written research papers on the animals, including one in the Journal of Urban Ecology. In the paper, he refers to beavers as “ecological engineers.”
England is a beaver coexistence expert who has recently reached out to the City of Airdrie to offer his expertise in dealing with an ongoing beaver issue there. But he hasn’t heard back from them.
He’s currently working with the City of Lethbridge on a beaver management strategy focused on co-existence. And he has been to Bolduc’s home.
England agreed with Bolduc’s examples of how beavers can be beneficial. When they chew down a trembling aspen, it stimulates the growth of root suckers, which is how aspen regenerates itself.
“They eat the living green layer of the wood – the cambium layer – and they are efficient foragers so they maximize the amount of cambium they’re getting by eating the smaller pieces,” England said.
“And they can’t climb, so the only way they can get at the smaller pieces is by cutting down the tree.”
England will be delivering a free beaver coexistence webinar Nov. 25, hosted by the Alberta Wilderness Association. To learn more about it go to bit.ly/3EgOISi
At the time England was doing his research in 2017, Bolduc, who has become known locally among Bragg Creekers as something of an expert, was approached by residents of a rural community to build some beaver habitat enhancement structures on Bragg Creek itself, just west of the hamlet.
So he designed and supervised the construction of what he calls a leveler – basically a large PVC pipe, permanently installed in the middle of the beaver dam, which would allow residents to control the level of the pond created upstream of the dam.
When Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) got wind of what he was doing, they came to see what was going on. They told him he needed a permit, but relented after their investigation revealed what he was doing was environmentally sound.
He still got a slap on the wrist, however.
“They (AEP) told me next time, ask permission,” he said, with a mischievous wink.
He subsequently received a letter from AEP absolving him of any wrongdoing.
Vandals tarnish project
Unfortunately, someone with an anti-beaver agenda decided to take matters into their own hands and shot the beaver that was trying to settle in the area.
They then destroyed the enhanced structure, along with the dam itself. The work of Bolduc and some 40 volunteers was swept downstream.
Bringing up the recent misfortune was the only time during the lengthy interview the big gentle bear of a man, who laughs easily and is passionate about his family and his beavers, showed any signs of anger.
The hardened facial expression softened quickly, though. Bolduc is confident the beavers will return to the creek near the community known as Saddle & Sirloin.
“Give them five years – they will be back,” he said.
It turns out that unlike a horse, you can lead a beaver to water – and make it do what it’s supposed to do when it gets there.