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BULLETnature archive
Nature Archive Photo
© Tim Fitzharris

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Leave It to the Beavers
Although they’re usually associated with the great north woods, beavers are right at home in Arizona — cutting trees, building dams ... the usual.

By Kelly Kramer

Way back when, when water was more prevalent in Arizona, so, too, was the Castor canadensis, better known to you, me, Ward and June as the beaver.

In fact, there was a time when beavers had strongholds along the San Pedro and Santa Cruz rivers, until habitat loss and heavy trapping led to their decline. Recent reintroductions, however, along with revitalization efforts, have stabilized beaver populations. Today, they can be found along permanent streams and rivers, shallow lakes and even some dirt-lined canals.

The rodents — which are primarily nocturnal and can weigh up to 60 pounds — have adapted to a waterlogged existence, thanks to flattened, oar-like tails that measure approximately 10 inches in length. Only capybaras in South America are larger than beavers, making beavers the second-largest rodents in the world. Along with a flat tail, they have webbed hind feet and eyes positioned high on their heads, perfect for seeing above water, à la alligators, Nessie and other aquatic fauna. In Arizona, beavers usually have thick cinnamon-colored fur coats.

Male and female beavers don't have distinct physical differences — they're similar in length and weight — and when it comes time for making rodent whoopee, they build dens along the waterways in which they live. The dens, which are commonly lined with cattails and native grasses, are above the waterline and provide a rustic nursery for the kits that arrive two to four at a time in the spring.

As they grow, the little ones snack on the same plants their parents do, mostly the bark of willows, cottonwoods and aspens. They'll also taste-test mesquite and tamarisk, as well as cattail and bulrush roots. And, of course, you'll know where a beaver has been. The constructive critters will fell trees and gather brush to build dams. They'll also build lodges within the dams or as separate vacation homes.

It's illegal to hunt beavers in Arizona, but trapping is not. According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the annual number of beavers trapped has declined significantly since the early 1990s. Game and Fish officials attribute the drop to limitations on trapping, as well as limited beaver subdivisions. That's not to say the animals have grown accustomed to a fear-free existence. Startle a beaver while it's in the water, and it'll likely slap the water with its tail and dive quickly beneath the surface, all in an effort to warn its beaver brethren.

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