LESTOCK, Sask. – Beavers are a tell-tale symbol of Canada. They are celebrated on currency and hold the title of the country’s national animal.
But not everyone loves beavers.
In fact, in Saskatchewan, they are on property owner’s minds for all the wrong reasons.
The eastern and northern parts of the province are made up of millions of small, stagnant bodies of water called sloughs. The unique, swamp-like terrain creates the perfect living conditions for the North American beaver.
A trapper since he was a child, Ryan Demchynski estimates he’s harvested 400 to 500 beavers around his property in the past five years.
“The biggest that I’ve ever scaled is 85 pounds.”
It’s been in the past five years that Demchynski says the beaver population has grown “out of control.”
He invited Focus Saskatchewan to a farm outside of Lestock to see exactly what the animals are capable of.
Demchynski estimates that he has lost 15 per cent of his farmable land since 2011 because of beavers building dams which expand already existing sloughs on his property.
Parts of his land could only be accessed via amphibious all-terrain vehicles.
“[This area] used to all be stubble… It was a regular field, there were no cattails. Now it’s all mud, wash-outs, trenches and water all the way back into here.”
Beavers are among the largest in the rodent family.
A long-time mascot of Canada, the industrious creatures are intelligent and relentless builders.
Wildlife expert Sarah Turkeli studies beavers at the Wascana Centre in Regina.
“Their kind of claim to fame is they build really impressive structures,” Turkeli said.
According to National Geographic, beavers are second only to humans in their ability to change landscapes.
“If in an area, the water flow is not high enough, they will build a dam so it makes a deeper pond, a deeper wetland, or whatever the habitat already is,” Turkeli said.
“It will build a better environment for them.”
And it is those dams that are wreaking havoc not only on private property, but public infrastructure as well.
An expensive problem
Brian Patterson has been a councillor in the rural municipality (RM) of Kellross, Sask. for 18 years.
In that time, he’s seen tens of thousands of dollars spent cleaning up after the busy beavers.
“If they get into a big culvert and block it up and if you have to unplug it, rip the culvert out and put a new one in, it costs $5-6000 dollars easily. So it’s a huge expense for the RM,” Patterson said.
Beavers often treat culverts as holes that need to be repaired in the “dam” that is the road. Once a culvert is fully plugged, the road is at risk of flooding.
“It’s constant. In the summer we’re running around constantly trying to keep culverts open.”
In most RMs, hunters and trappers can kill beavers on sight and turn in their tails as proof. They are then awarded a small bounty for the tails.
In 2011, thanks to overwhelming demand from RMs, the Ministry of Agriculture developed the Beaver Control Program. The program is a cost-sharing system where the province matches bounties of at least $15 per tail.
The idea is to help the RMs financially while adding the incentive to eliminate more problem beavers.
Manager of Grant and Rebate programs with the Ministry of Agriculture, Francine Brule, said demand from RMs has remained high since the program’s implementation.
“We had 152 rural municipalities apply to the program [last year] and 10 First Nations bands. We paid out, the program was fully allotted, so $450,000 was paid out,” she said.
“That’s equivalent to just over 38,000 beavers removed.”
The RM of Kellross has been relying on the program to deal with beavers within its jurisdiction.
“About three years ago we were the highest paid out RM in the whole province. We took about 1,800 beavers out. It sounds like a lot but there’s thousands out there,” Patterson said.
Left to waste
While a bounty is paid only for the beaver’s tail, the rest of the animal is usually left to rot.
That’s why Demchynski decided to create a beaver derby from April 1 to May 10. Hunters across eastern Saskatchewan keep the tails but submit the rest of the beaver with the hopes of winning a prize. Top prize is $1000 for the most combined weight in beaver carcasses in 40 days.
Note: The 2016 Beaver Derby is not in any way affiliated with the province’s Beaver Control Program or the Ministry of Environment/Agriculture.
“A lot of the guys have embraced it. There [are] no extra beavers getting killed because of the derby, it’s just that now they’re getting used.”
Demchynski is taking the pelts, carcasses and glands to market. Beaver pelts, which can be tailored into hats and other articles of clothing, have not been in demand since the fall of the fur trade. Carcasses can be used as bear bait in different parts of the country and the beaver’s castor glands are used primarily for perfume.
“I just put together the [derby], just bring those in, there’s no market for them at best, but I’ll try to make use of them.”
Demchynski does not know exactly how many beavers have been brought to him since the derby started, but says there have been a “few hundred.”
Wildlife advocates slam derby
Not everyone is sold on the idea of a beaver derby. The B.C.-based Association for the Protection of Fur-bearing Animals calls the event “ecological genocide.”
“We’re just talking about killing as many animals as we can, killing the biggest animals we possibly can, and nothing is really based in sound management practices,” Adrian Nelson, director of communications, said.
“Even without considering the inherently inhumane methodology of beaver trapping, or the harm and suffering it causes beaver family units, this contest is ecological genocide and should be halted immediately.”
The Vancouver-based organization has recommended using water flow controls as an alternative to killing the beavers.
But Demchynski says they have already explored that option.
“There is no flow control that is ever going to work in these stagnant, little bodies of water that just keep building up,” he said.
“I wish they worked. Cause I would have a business year round doing nothing but flow controls.”
And so the cull remains. So far, it is the only method that appears to stem the wily beaver’s numbers.
At the end of the day, for the hunters and property owners directly affected by the rodent, it’s nothing personal.
“We’re not against beavers, we love them, but at this point there’s just too many in the game,” Demchynski said.