Before the fur trade it was estimated that the beaver population was at least 60 million (some estimate it could have been 400 million) spread out across the continent as far south as Mexico’s northern border. There were at least 25 million biodiversity hot spots including beaver ponds, wetlands, and meadows all teaming with a wide diversity of life.
As described in her introduction Frances Backhouse covers our relationship with the mighty beaver (Castor canadensis). They have fed and clothed us, inspired spiritual beliefs and cultural traditions driven the course of history and more importantly may play a role in water stewardship.
The title of the book “Once They Were Hats, In Search of the Mighty Beaver” reminds us of how our consumption habits almost extinguished this remarkable dam builder and ecosystem modifier. The author starts with a history of the extinct relatives using the fossil records and compares canadensis with the European version and goes into detail on how the beaver impacted the First Nations and early Europeans apart from the hat industry.
It was estimated that the over-trapping reduced the population to one percent of the original size but the mighty beaver turned out to be more resilient than the passenger pigeon and buffalo as described in the section “Back from the Brink.”
No recovery history would be complete with out mention of Grey Owl (Archibald Belaney) and his involvement with the reintroduction and for those in the Cariboo-Chilcotin there is a section about Eric Collier and his family in Three Against the Wilderness. The author describes her visit to the Meldrum Creek homestead and how the Colliers tried to rebuild the dams and eventually brought in some beavers to take over.
With Stampede weekend coming up there is a detailed section on making felt hats with cowboy hats, still one of the favourites. If you are thinking of finally getting a quality hat you should know the amount of beaver fur in the hat determines its quality and price. Don’t bother with a white stetson like the Calgary crowd, they are hard to keep clean. Instead get a black (or at least dark one) but you must decide on the style. Whether for a cattleman, bull rider, gaucho or the open road etc, save the best part of a thousand dollar bill if you want mostly beaver fur content.
The author also took the time to talk to Pete Wise who has trapped beavers for 53 years and has learned how to deal humanely with problem animals through his animal damage control business. She also attended the North American fur auction to see how beaver pelt prices compare to the value in the 1800s and visited the Robertson trading store in La Ronge Saskatchewan to discover how animal pelts are processed and marketed today. One of the highlights was meeting a modern day trapper Vern Studer who is 86 and still walks his trap line to keep in shape. He has been a bush pilot for most of his life as well as a trapper and still flies his Taylor Craft F 19 to check on his trapline. With his experience he can tell from the air which beaver houses are likely to have an over abundance of beavers and may require some harvesting.
Part two of Beaver partners will deal with some incredible stories about how beavers have impacted the landscape in the past and could be a significant tool in dealing with water management that could be critical if the temperature continues to increase.
Jim Hilton is a retired professional forester who has lived and worked in the Cariboo-Chilcotin for many years.