SNYDER: Beavers played historic role in Pennsylvania and beyond


Few people realize the important role a rodent had in this nation's birth.

When European settlers first arrived here more than two centuries ago, they were greeted by the brutally cold temperatures of East Coast winters. Every year, thousands of folks died because of the harsh conditions.

Remedies were scarce, but one of the best things pioneers found to keep warm was the thick, insulating fur of a beaver (Castor canadensis). During the late 18th century, beavers were plentiful across North America. Unfortunately, as more and more Europeans migrated to America, that would change.

With beaver pelts selling for outrageous prices, East Coast populations plunged. Adventurous trappers were forced to plow across the country's unexplored lands in search of beavers and the wealth their pelts could provide.

In Pennsylvania, trappers nearly wiped out the beaver population. At the start of the 19th century, there were no or, at the least, very few beavers in the entire state. For more than three decades, beavers were legally off limits to hunters.

Fortunately things have changed. In 1917, the Game Commission released a pair of beavers from Wisconsin into a remote valley in Cameron County. Since then, descendants of the pair, and other beavers brought into the state from Canada, have brought the population back to healthy levels. Now, beavers can be found in large numbers across the state, especially in the heavily-forested northern counties. They can even be found here in York County.

Thanks to restoration efforts, beaver trapping is again possible throughout Pennsylvania. In fact, hunters record a harvest of more than 9,000 of the state's beavers each year.

Beavers, which can weigh as much as 60 pounds when fully grown, gnaw through tree trunks to get at the nutritious leaves and twigs that wait above. When they are finished dining on the wood, they use their ever-growing front teeth to cut the tree into smaller sections that they use to build dams and lodges.

The animals build lodges in the middle of small streams to protect themselves from predators and for shelter from the weather. They build dams in the streams to create a protective moat around their lodge.

Beavers also use the dams to control a stream's water level. Often, they will increase the size of a dam in order to make the pool behind it deeper. This allows the agile swimmers to reach more food without having to leave the safety of the water.

Throughout out the fall and into early winter, beavers can be seen busily working along stream banks to gather enough food to last through the winter. They gather as many twigs and branches as they can and bury them in the mud below their lodges. That way, when cold weather sets in and the surrounding water freezes, they have plenty of food to get them through the winter.

Hundreds of years ago, the thought of warm beaver fur forced countless men out of the safety of East Coast towns and into the country's unsettled west. The idea of returning home with dozens of high-priced furs drove men further and further west.

Before long, they reached the Pacific, helping to stretch a nation from ocean to ocean behind them.

There is no doubt that without these unique rodents, our country's history would be significantly different.

Andy Snyder writes about the outdoors for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at