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

It’s an amazing story that, very likely, played a part in why and how you’re here today.

You see, when European settlers first arrived in North America more than four 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 help them survive was the thick, insulating fur of a beaver (Castor canadensis). It was a discovery that changed the nation.

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, adventurous trappers plowed across the country’s unexplored lands in search of beavers and the wealth their pelts could provide. As trappers became experts at harvesting the animals, beaver numbers across the country dipped into dangerously low territory.

Beavers nearly wiped out in Pennsylvania: In Pennsylvania, trappers nearly wiped out the entire beaver population. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were no or, at the least, very few beavers in the entire state.

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.

These days, beavers can be found in large numbers across the state, especially in the heavily-forested northern counties.

Thanks to restoration efforts, beaver trapping is again possible throughout Pennsylvania. In fact, hunters record an annual harvest of some 9,000 of the state’s beavers each year. Trapping is the most common technique used to harvest the furry critters.

It’s a controversial method, but there’s no debating that trapping plays a critical role in keeping the population under control. If left unchecked, beavers can cause immense damage.

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. Then 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.

It’s an ironic habit. After all, hundreds of years ago, precious beaver fur lured countless men out of the safety of East Coast towns and into the country’s unsettled west.

Before long, just like a sprawling beaver den, these explorers reached the Pacific and a burgeoning nation stretched from ocean to ocean behind them.

No doubt, the critters and their warm pelts changed the fate of our nation.

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

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