ESSEX — More than any average budget hearing, the meeting is so packed that it had to be moved to an auditorium. Residents as young as 10 came to speak their mind on the issue at hand… beavers.
“I still remember that meeting of the conservation commission. It was the most contentious I have ever been to,” said Norm Needleman the first selectman of Essex, about a meeting five years ago following the flooding and destruction of a section of Viney Hill Brook Park near Quarry Pond in Essex. “Yes, we have a beaver problem, like every other town around here. They are spectacular little animals that cause a massive amount of destruction.”
Nearly every town I spoke to in the lower Connecticut River Valley has at least one fabled story about their dealings with beavers. Whether it was a series of private homes and yards that were damaged as happened in Old Lyme this summer, or the flooding of a large section of preserved open space, the controversies and debate that follow are some of the most contentious.
Town politics turn suddenly on the value of the life of a beaver.
“We developed this pro-beaver block so we were able to get the vote to work in such a way to protect the beavers,” said Frank Hall, a member of the Essex Conservation Commission who joined when the beavers started causing problems in the fall of 2014.
Hall, along with two other newly-elected commission members, led the effort to turn open space land in Essex into a safe haven for beavers.
“Long term what we decided was that we would let them stay at Viney Hill Brook, but elsewhere we would dispatch them,” Needleman said.
“Dispatch,” as Needleman put it, is just a nice way of saying “kill.” It is against the law in the state of Connecticut to relocate beavers. Therefore, if they are trapped they must be killed. This is the root problem with every debate from Essex to Old Lyme about beavers. Preserve parks and homes, manmade and natural structures, or preserve the beavers.
“When we had this problem, I said let’s get both sides of the story and it’s don’t kill them or kill them,” said Carl Fortuna, the first selectman in Old Saybrook. “Certain groups of people don’t want to hurt anything and beavers are a particularly difficult problem because you can’t relocate them and it can be very difficult to live with them.”
In Old Saybrook the decision was made to “dispatch” the beavers. In other towns like Essex and East Lyme, devices called “beaver deceivers” were installed in an attempt to allow humans and beavers to coexist without massive disruption for either species.
The conservation commission in Essex had installed three beaver deceivers, and one was installed for the Parks and Recreation Department, all near Quarry Pond. In East Lyme there was one installed for the Friends of Oswegatchie Hills. These devices work particularly well in a manmade structure, like a culvert, that has been dammed up by beavers.
“Almost every culvert can be protected from beavers, there isn’t usually a need to trap when beavers are plugging up manmade structures,” said Mike Callahan, the founder of Beaver Solutions who has installed all four of the beaver deceivers for the town of Essex. “In fact, in Massachusetts, we have one town with 55 spots and we only need to trap at 12 of them.”
Despite what many argue contra-beaver, in the long run trapping costs a town more money, according to a study conducted by the Beaver Institute in Billerica Massachusetts.
“The trapping sites cost the town more money than the flow devices because you never know when they’re going to come back,” Callahan said. “Instead of a device that lasts ten years or more it is a constant effort.”
In Billerica, the cost to taxpayers to trap beavers is $409 per site per year, compared to $229 per site per year for flow device sites. Flow devices typically cost about $2,000 at the time of installation. In order to pay for the upkeep of these devices in Essex, a Beaver Fund has been established that receives annual donations.
If it’s contentious when the beaver activity and damage is on town property, it can be far more complicated and fraught when the beaver is on private property.
“We’ve effectively created a habitat, but there are constant problems in other parts of town,” Needleman said. “The problem is that the dam is often on property that does not get flooded. This is an issue where the state and town don’t have a lot of jurisdiction, but it happens all the time.”
Beavers pit one property owner against another, one yard and home affected and without consequence for the other.
“You would think these watercourses that run from one end of town to the other wouldn’t be private property, but they are. And therein lies the problem,” Needleman said. “When there are real dams on private property the state inspects them and the property owner must maintain them so downstream properties are not affected. That is not true for beaver-built dams.”
Every town official, land trust head and volunteer when asked about beaver problems on private property winced slightly and agreed… yes it is always complicated, and truly nobody wins.
“Beavers are a tricky topic and each situation would merit its own review to consider all aspects. Lucky for us, we have had very few occasions where beavers were causing a disruption and an intervention was considered,” said Sue Cope, the Environmental Director at the Lyme Land Conservation Trust.
Lucky, is right. Dave Berggren and Essex Conservation Commission members have spent numerous days hiking in to break up a dam damaging property, knowing that the problem will only return the following day.
“I don’t deal with problem beavers outside of the preserves but my heart goes out to people whose dwellings are impacted by them,” said Wendy Hill, the Open Space Coordinator for Lyme. “I have learned by observation and research that trapping and removing unwanted beavers is usually not a good solution. If the environment will support a beaver population, a new batch of beavers will soon move in. Removing and breaching dams is not a long-term solution either. The beavers will immediately rebuild, usually repairing the damaged dam in one day. Beaver dam diverters seem to be the best solution in those cases. The beavers continue their activity but the diverter allows the water to bypass the dam and alleviates the flooding.”
According to Callahan, however, beaver deceivers can only work in about 75 percent of problems spots. For the other 25 percent, it’s a debate whether to trap and “dispatch” or live with the dam.