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During the early history of Indiana, beavers were a very valuable fur species. Their pelts were used in place of currency by fur trappers, traders, and Indians throughout the newly explored Midwest. In fact, it was disputes over trapping rights for beaver that fueled the French and Indian Wars. During the 1920s, large beaver pelts were worth as much as $100 each. Unfortunately, the demand for beaver was too great, and by 1840, beaver were considered rare in Indiana. In 1935, the Indiana Department of Conservation obtained a few breeding pairs of beaver from Wisconsin and released them on Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area. As the population grew, some moved into adjacent counties while others were trapped and released in other parts of the state. Presently, beaver are found in almost every county.
The beaver (Castor canadensis) is the largest rodent found in North America. Its appearance is similar to that of a large muskrat with a broad, flattened tail. Most adults weigh between 30 and 70 pounds and measure about four feet in length. Like other rodents, the beaver’s front teeth (incisors) grow throughout its life. The back surface of their incisors is softer than the front surface so that when they gnaw, the teeth are constantly sharpened and maintain a chisel-like appearance. The beaver's front feet, although not webbed, are skillfully used for digging, grooming and carrying objects. Their large hind feet are fully webbed and aid in swimming. A unique feature of the beaver is that the second toenail of each hind foot is double or split and is used as a comb to groom their fur.
Of course, the most unusual part of the beaver is its tail. The tail is used for many functions but is seldom used a trowel for carrying mud. The tail is used as a rudder and a propulsion agent during swimming, and it supports the body when cutting trees. One of its main functions is a signaling device. When startled the broad, flat tail is smacked on the surface of the water, alerting other beaver in the area of possible danger. Beaver dive under water to escape danger and can remain submerged for up to six minutes before resurfacing for air.
These “engineers of the wilderness” are best known for their abilities to cut down trees and construct dams. Indiana beaver restrict most of their cuttings to brush and small saplings, although they are capable of felling large trees. In cutting a tree, a beaver turns its head sideways and anchors its upper teeth into the tree. Then, by bringing up its lower teeth and twisting its head, the beaver tears out a large chip. It continues working around the tree, cutting a deeper and wider swath until the tree topples.
Although all beaver are capable of building lodges, most beaver in Indiana build a modified bank burrow. One of two tunnels leads from below water level up into the bank to a nest chamber above water level. The nest chamber is about two feet high and 4 to 6 feet in diameter. Frequently, a pile of interlaced sticks and branches mixed with mud is placed on top of the bank directly above the nest chamber.
During the 1950s, the principal beaver range was the Kankakee and Tippecanoe River drainage systems. More than 8,000 miles of flowing water and thousands of acres of lakes and ponds are available in Indiana for beaver to inhabit.
Beaver have few enemies and predation is limited primarily to man. Because they live in small, isolated colonies and are intolerant of newcomers, disease is not spread and has very little effect in depressing population growth. It is estimated that without control, the beaver population would increase by about one-third each year.
Beavers are strict vegetarians. During the winter months, their diet consists primarily of the bark and twigs of trees and other woody plants. Before winter arrives, beaver eagerly fell trees. Each branch is clipped from the main log, cut in appropriate size and then stashed under water in a large brushpile. When ice covers the waters surface, food is readily available by swimming from the lodge to the brushpile. During the spring and summer, beaver feed on both leafy parts and roots of aquatic plants such as cattail, duck potato, water lily, spadder dock, grass and sedge. Beavers are also very fond of young blackberry canes, and when cornfields are nearby, large quantities of corn may also be appropriated.
Due to their small size, lack of rich color, fur coarseness and heavy hide, Indiana beaver lack the qualities sought by the fur industry. Only a small portion of the state harvest is actually used by furriers. About 30 to 40 percent are used to make partially-furred garments such as pieced coats, hats and gloves, and less than 10 percent are used to make high fashion apparel. As a result, demand for Indiana beaver has been quite low and average pelt price has seldom exceeded $10. Low prices combined with the amount of time required to properly skin, flesh and stretch the hide produce very little incentive for trappers to trap beaver.
Although beaver harvest has steadily increased, it is not indicative of the economic demand placed upon the resource. Instead, it is in response to the beaver's increasing availability and attempts by landowners to remove nuisance beaver during the legal season. At present, the owner or tenant of any property may take without permit during the closed season, any beaver discovered in the act of damaging such property.