Beavers As Pests, 1916
The most important animal in North America in the 1700s was not the mighty grizzly-bear, nor was it the stampeding buffalo. Instead, the most-important animal in colonial America was the lowly beaver.
Beaver pelts were profitably used to make felt hats in Europe, and fur companies sent out Native Americans to trap beavers, and fur traders to buy the pelts.
Beavers are legendary for their work habits, the “busy beavers,” constantly felling trees, making beaver-lodges, and beaver dams. They have to keep gnawing on tree-trunks to wear down their teeth; which never stop growing.
The pursuit of beaver furs led to a decimation of the beaver population in Dakota and elsewhere, bringing an end to the fur-trading era by the mid-1800s.
Laws of Dakota Territory in 1887 prohibited killing or trapping beavers because cattle ranchers wanted beavers to make dams on streams as convenient watering places for cattle, saving stockmen the expense of building dams. The protection continued after North Dakota became a state two years later. Violators of the state game laws were subject to a one-hundred-dollar fine and imprisonment.
Some trappers defied the law, but the beaver population along the state’s streams and rivers eventually recovered, with the busy beavers making dams.
Unfortunately, protection of beavers worked too well and beavers proliferated, becoming a serious “pest in the Missouri Valley.” It became a choice … having beavers or having trees along waterways. Farmers became furious when beavers chewed-down groves of trees and beaver-dams flooded fields in the bottomlands. They demanded that lawmakers change beaver protection laws. And stockmen found windmill pumps to be more reliable than beaver-ponds, especially considering that cattle would sometimes drown amid beaver-dam debris.
Accordingly, on this date in 1916, the Tribune reported on efforts to control the beaver population. The state Game and Fish Commission hired professional trappers to eradicate these so-called “evil . . . . varmints” along the Missouri Slope and allowed additional trappers to buy licenses to harvest beaver pelts.
And so, the story of beavers went full circle, from abundance to near-extinction, followed by a revival that threatened farming and ranching. Today, beaver remain fair game in North Dakota for properly licensed hunters and trappers.
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.
Sources: “Planning To Control The Beaver,” Fargo Forum, November 24, 1916, p. 9.
“Beavers Do Damage At Sawyer,” Ward County Independent, December 14, 1916, p. 9.
“Beavers A Pest In Missouri Valley,” Forks Herald, November 13, 1917, p. 6.
“Beaver Can Be Shot Next Year In North Dakota,” Grand Forks Herald, October 31, 1917, p. 3.
“Beavers Become Numerous Again,” Grand Forks Herald, November 12, 1915, p. 3.
“Lights And Shadows: A Bill Has Been Introduced,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, February 11, 1887, p. 11.
“Keeping Tab On The Law-Makers,” Jamestown Weekly Alert, December 19, 1889, p. 1.
“There May Be Many,” Jamestown Weekly Alert, July 21, 1887, p. 4.
“Beavers Back In N.D." Ward County Independent, June 30, 1910, p. 1.
“Few Beaver Left,” Jamestown Weekly Alert, August 29, 1901, p. 1.