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The Ottawa-Gatineau Beaver: Our Misunderstood Neighbours

Ah, beavers. Nature’s engineers, lugging sticks and branches from near and from far to build dams and lodges that slowly transform our rivers and creeks into whatever habitat their species requires in order to survive and thrive. But the beaver is more than a hardworking, industrious animal. It is an important part of the Canadian story, and here in the National Capital Region, the beaver is a part of a contemporary story being written, evolving, and shared between Canadian people and the beaver itself.

From The Fur Trade Until Today: The Beaver in Canadian History

Canada’s iconic beaver had an integral role in the European exploration and settlement of the continent. The fur trade, or trappage des fourrures, to which ‘Canadians’ of both the Indigenous and French-descended varieties dedicated themselves throughout the 1600s and early 1700s, was the economic backbone of the continent, and of the beaver itself. Thankfully, due to its outsized economic importance at the time, steps were taken to ensure the sustainability of the beaver by means of export regulations and regulations on current trappage.

Unfortunately, looming shortly afterwards were the effects of industrialization and the necessary deforestation that its infrastructure demands. As North America rapidly industrialized, the beaver’s first and most significant obstacle appeared in the form of the ubiquitous Hydro-Electric Dams. As supplies of lumber from sustainable forestry practices came to replace raw forest products as the local source of timber, the inevitable effect on beaver populations in-turn manifested across the continent, from coast-to-coast.

Blessedly, time and a general improvement in environmental awareness also saw the beaver’s plight shift for the better. In some federal regions, such as Ontario, new laws and regulations concerning the beaver came into effect, and populations in the Cornwall district management areas began to recover, though still existent in low numbers. The mid-1900s brought a greater understanding of the need to keep ourselves in equilibrium with the natural world around us, increasing the public desire to conserve their beaver populations, even if they weren’t always sure how or why it should be done.

The Beaver in the National Capital Region

It was against this backdrop the beaver’s story in the National Capital Region came to be. Aside from the remaining fur traders that still conducted business in the years leading up to Canadian confederation in 1867, the beaver was only kept alive due to the presence of a few resilient and devoted individuals. Initially, it was only the rich that could afford to keep the beaver in domesticated settings, where they were often kept in small ponds dotted across the ranch lands that used to occupy what we now call Ottawa-Gatineau.

Today, the future is a bit brighter for Ottawa-Gatineau beavers. The bylaws concerning beaver keeping that were passed in Ontario in 1951 were implemented in Quebec at the beginning of the 21st century and, combined with increasing public education of the species’ needs and wants, beaver populations are more numerous and more visible than ever before.

The beaver’s presence in Canadian history is still felt, from an economic and environmental standpoint, but its presence in the National Capital Region has also become something of a celebrated phenomenon. Parks Canada, GOVIC Environmental Organization, and numerous other organizations have made it a point to emphasize the importance of Ottawa-Gatineau’s beaver population and their place in the local eco-system.

Beaver two

Interacting with the Ottawa-Gatineau Beaver

Interacting with the animals is not always a direct suggestion, however. There are, thankfully, safety regulations in place to ensure that both humans and animals remain safe in their natural habitat.

For one, it is advised to avoid picking up any beaver kits, or babies, as they are very sensitive to temperature and possible external infections and parasites. In addition, their parents may become highly aggressive in their attempts to protect their young, and proper protocol regarding their handling must be followed.

Likewise, walking dogs near beavers’ dens should be avoided. While they may look calm or unassuming while submerged in the water, they are capable of defending themselves if necessary, and being startled and aggressively attacked by a large mammal is never fun.

That being said, humans and beavers can coexist as neighbours in a healthy and mutually-beneficial way. Making a mental note of the areas where beavers have dens, as well as the waterways they use in their jobs as nature’s engineers is a safe and respectful way to live in harmony with our animal neighbours. By understanding their environmental needs and the areas where their activity increases and decreases, Ottawa-Gatineau residents can more fully appreciate the diversity our beavers bring to the region.

The Beaver as Part of Our Identity

The beaver’s presence in the National Capital has a history as old as Canada itself, but it also speaks to a changing definition of what it means to be Canadian in the current day. Sharers of the beaver’s habitation, knowledge, and appreciation of the environment, we understand the beaver to be a part of our collective identity, present and future.

As much as the beaver is an important part of the history of this great land, its presence and its future is integral to the definition of what ‘we’ as Canadian’s consider to be ‘our’ story. We understand our beavers’ needs as intimately as our own, and fully recognize the importance of their presence in our region. Our beaver is an integral part of our identity and thus, its success is an important factor in both our collective survival and prosperity. Long may we respect the beaver and enjoy the many marvels it brings our way.

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