John Aberth: Why are we killing the one animal that can increase wildlife habitat?

John Aberth is a licensed volunteer wildlife rehabilitator who rehabs beavers, raptors and other animals at Flint Brook Wildlife Rescue in Roxbury.

“The conservation of the fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the people of Vermont.” That is the official mission statement of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. There is  one animal in Vermont that greatly facilitates the achievement of this mission: the North American beaver. Beavers create some of the richest, most biologically productive habitats on earth, comparable to rainforests and coral reefs. Their dammed wetlands create habitats for fish, waterfowl, deer, moose, mink, amphibians and a host of other animals. For this reason, they are known as a “keystone” species for biodiversity.

These are all facts well known to the Department of Fish and Wildlife: I have been present at presentations where their biologists have presented these same facts. Yet, at the same time, the department promotes and licenses the recreational trapping of over 1,000 beavers a year, on average, throughout the state. 

This trapping is done for no other reason than the recreational pleasure of killing these animals, who, because they can hold their breath for up to 15 minutes underwater, take at least that long to drown and die in underwater traps. The traditional justification for trapping beaver — to harvest their fur pelts — is today belied by the fact that a market barely exists for animal fur, largely owing to popular awareness of the cruelties of trapping.

This recreational trapping of beavers is directly inimical to the stated mission of the Fish and Wildlife Department — to conserve good wildlife habitat — because without the presence of beavers to maintain dams, they quickly erode and the valuable wetland habitat is lost. Moreover, much of recreational trapping takes place on public lands, where the habitat is most productive and is most needed.

In their presentations to the public, department biologists often cite beavers’ damming of road culverts, resulting in flooding of town roads, as a justification for the continued trapping of beavers. Yet the trapping of “nuisance” beavers, often conducted or overseen by town road crews, is completely separate from recreational trapping conducted by trappers licensed by the Fish and Wildlife Department. Such “nuisance” trapping by towns or private landowners often takes place outside of the official trapping season and is justified as an attempt to protect local roads or culverts allegedly “damaged” by beaver activity. 

In reality, almost all such conflicts over human-created infrastructure can nowadays be resolved non-lethally, by means of water-flow control devices (WFCDs), such as the popularly-named “Beaver Deceiver,” when installed by a competent professional. 

The Fish and Wildlife Department estimates that “nuisance” trapping kills 500-600 beavers a year, which is in addition to the 1,000+ beavers killed by recreational trappers. In truth, trapping is not a “solution” at all, since new beavers almost always move into the empty conflict site within 1-2 years. Only WFCDs can provide long-term, non-lethal and humane solutions that are in fact far more cost effective than trapping.

From almost any perspective, beavers are far more valuable alive than dead, even if one is a hunter or trapper. After all, beavers create habitats that sustain exponentially greater numbers of wild animals to be hunted or trapped! But a similar argument can be made for almost any other furbearer that is currently trapped. 

For example, foxes, coyotes, mink, weasels, bobcats and other predators are our first line of defense against Lyme disease, which has its second highest incidence right here in Vermont. Simply by hunting the carriers of Borrelia burgdorferi, such as white-footed mice, predators keep the mice from infecting ticks that transmit the bacteria to humans. Moreover, Vermont’s apex predators such as coyotes and bobcats help prevent runaway population growth of herbivore species that can decimate local vegetation cover necessary for sustaining many other species.

Wildlife belongs to all Vermonters, which is why it is important that ordinary citizens get involved in issues that impact their welfare. Trapping is one issue where a solid majority of Vermonters — 75 percent — agree that its harmful impacts upon animals — which include domestic as well as wild, since dogs and cats are routinely caught in leghold traps — far outweigh any perceived benefits to humans and therefore should be banned. 

Since the Fish and Wildlife Department seems committed to promoting trapping as a recreational activity in Vermont, it is up to all of us to get involved with our elected officials to make wildlife protection a priority!

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