In early May, a small excavator, three Department of Public Works employees, a police detail, and two days were needed to clear a six-foot culvert on Still River Road near the Bolton line. The culvert had been entirely plugged by beavers, posing the risk of potential flooding and threatening road infrastructure.
Referring to this incident, DPW Director Tim Kilhart asked the Board of Health for six emergency trapping permits at its May 9 meeting. The board voted unanimously to grant the permits, which Kilhart immediately activated.
The permits are considered “emergency” permits to enable a timely response and can be secured only in the threat of an emergency. It is, however, this threat that allows trapping outside the regular trapping season, which runs from Nov. 1 to April 15.
The six trapping permits are in effect for 10 days, starting May 10, and cover active beaver areas on town land. Areas include Still River Road near the Bolton line, Williams Pond at the intersection of Stow Road and Murray Lane, Depot Road at Under Pin Hill Road near the Transfer Station, Lancaster County Road just past the McCurdy track, Eldridge Road at the 6-foot culvert, and Ann Lees Road near the playing fields. Eight other areas in town are being monitored but currently do not have beaver activity.
Kilhart, in a phone interview with the Press, advised residents to stay away from these areas to keep clear of any traps. He also encouraged residents to call him at the DPW with any concerns.
In his hourlong presentation to the Board of Health, May 9, Kilhart framed the problem. His primary concern with beavers is that their damming of culverts may cause flooding and in turn damage road infrastructure. In addition, removing dams is dangerous work and is expensive, he said.
To clear a dam, Kilhart explained, DPW workers don waders and crawl four to five feet deep into a culvert, unpacking the mud, rocks, and sticks. Kilhart can attest to the danger. “I’ve been flushed out of a culvert before,” he said. “I was undoing a dam and it let go and I was in the pipe. I came out the other side. I was screaming. I know what it’s like.”
After reviewing the costs of dam removal at the Still River Road culvert, Kilhart said he couldn’t afford to have three of his five workers spending two days to unclog a beaver dam on a regular basis and to pay for a police detail. An ongoing management program that included both maintenance and the occasional off-season trapping permit would have the town taking a “proactive, rather than reactive, stance,” he said.
Town records from 2002 forward show that for the past 14 years there has been an overall decrease in the number of beavers culled by trapping. This trend may speak to the effectiveness of trapping in keeping the beaver population in Harvard at a manageable size. The average number of beavers trapped annually since 2002 is 14. The cost of trapping over this time period was $49,820.
Using records kept by the Finance Department, it’s possible to estimate the number of beavers trapped in Harvard over the past 14 years. Though data is missing for two of those years, in the years for which figures are available, catches have averaged 15 beavers per year, from a high of 27 in 2002 to 17 in 2016. (Source: Harvard Finance Department)
The regular peaks and valleys of the graph suggest the two-year growth cycle of beaver kits. As explained by Kilhart, when kits are two years old, they are forced out to live on their own in nearby abandoned lodges or to establish new colonies. The following year, the kits mature and have litters of two or three kits of their own. Beavers reproduce yearly and can live up to 24 years in the wild. They grow their entire lives and can exceed 65 pounds in weight.
As Kilhart notes, Massachusetts law requires that trapped beavers must be destroyed on site. Before 1996, beavers could be live-trapped and released elsewhere. Beaver populations ballooned, and beaver problems were displaced to other communities.
“We’re not going out there and trapping because we can; we’re trapping because there’s a problem,” said Kilhart.
“Beavers only go away if their food supply runs out or if they are trapped,” Kilhart told the board. To this, Nashoba Associated Boards of Health sanitarian Ira Grossman added, “And if they run out of food, there’ll be no forests.” However, beavers can also be fooled into believing the dam they build is stopping the flow of water, when it isn’t.
A previous beaver problem resulted in the DPW installing deceivers on Williams Pond. (Courtesy photo)
In 1995, Beaver Deceivers were brought to the commercial market by Skip Lisle of Vermont. The concept is that an open-wired, trapezoidal-shaped fence located on the upstream side of the culvert allows water to flow but keeps beavers from building a dam in the culvert, only near the culvert. An underwater, upstream pipe system removes the sound of running water, and again fools the beaver into thinking the dam that’s built is really blocking the culvert.
The first Beaver Deceivers introduced to Harvard were built by DPW workers. DPW foreman Ron Gilbert, who has worked in town for 16 years, recalls having some success with DPW’s homemade deceivers. “When it was working, it took us off the job of unplugging the culverts,” he said. In an Oct. 26, 2012, letter to the editor, Conservation Commission Chairman Paul Willard thanked Gilbert and the DPW crew for their creative solution of using diverters on the inlets and gates on the outlets of culverts to deter beaver dams.
At its Nov. 5, 2015, meeting, the Conservation Commission contracted Mike Callahan of Beaver Solutions to consult with the town about beaver issues. Through Beaver Solutions, the first commercial deceiver and its annual maintenance plan was bought and installed. Last year, former DPW Director Rich Nota purchased six more commercial deceivers with pipe systems.
And for now, Kilhart believes the best combination for controlling Harvard’s beaver population and mitigating future damage is to use a professional trapper and keep deceivers functioning well. “You’re never going to eradicate them [beavers]. You’re going to try to control the population so they don’t overrun your existing system,” said Kilhart.
Blase Provitola, farmer and co-owner of Old Frog Pond Farm, has lived with the challenge of cohabiting with beavers. Before living at Old Frog Pond, Provitola was a Harvard landowner with 60 acres of forest, wetlands, and a dirt road. He was a forester with big timber pines, and his land provided him a tax break. But beavers were blocking culverts, raising the water levels, and flooding the road. The large pines with their shallow roots systems were suffocating and dying. Road repair was costing $10,000 annually. For several years, Provitola cleared beaver dams by hand with friends and he built diverters, but the beavers came back.
Provitola talked about his change of heart regarding trapping in an interview: “If you own land and you have water on it, you hear about people trapping beavers. Your instincts are to say no, especially for a sensitive person, but you have to decide where you draw the line. Do you let them decimate what you have?” Provitola trapped then, but hasn’t since he sold the property.
His partner, Linda Hoffman, a farmer and sculptor, talked about balance, mindfulness, and understanding as a state of mind. At Old Frog Pond, the farm is surrounded by water and has three lodges on the property, and both Hoffman and Provitola have made a choice to coexist. Hoffman accepts some loss as being a part of her world. Her sculpture of a spinning prayer wheel was made with the help of a beaver: “There’s the part I carved, and then there’s the part the beaver carved, and then there’s another part I carved.” Provitola chimed in, “We have to somehow cohabitate. I feel like it’s the dance we do.”