Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Damned if we do, dammed if we don’t: Beaver Trapping in Lyman Lakes

When I found out Carleton was trying to kill beavers living in Lyman Lakes, I knew I needed to save them at all costs. So, I shimmied out onto the thin ice and shook the submerged traps until I heard them snap shut with a loud clack. Carefully, I crawled back to shore, examined my work and beamed with pride; having just saved the lives of three innocent beavers.

Then I got to know the guy who set the traps — Mike Smith — and my convictions were complicated.

I first met Mike the night before I sabotaged his traps. Late one night in Winter Term, my friend and I were walking across the lakes enjoying a blizzard when we spotted him drilling holes into the ice. Standing out in the blistering snow, we struck up a conversation.

He introduced himself as Mike, a twenty-eight-year-old Northfield native who manages a truck shop by day and traps nuisance beavers by night. He told us that Carleton called him in to get rid of the beavers after they started causing damage.

As someone who loves watching the beavers of Lyman Lakes, I was in disbelief as to why Carleton wanted to kill these remarkable rodents.

Shortly after sabotaging his traps, I received an email from Mike kindly inviting me to check the traps with him that evening. I immediately panicked and prayed he wouldn’t be able to figure out someone messed with them. I agreed to check the traps anyway, and hoped that I could write about this experience for the final project in my environmental ethics class.

So, later that evening, I bundled up and met Mike down by the lakes. Standing there shivering and paranoid, we checked the underwater traps one by one. To my relief, he didn’t suspect anything was awry. Feeling guilty for making him come back out in the cold just to check traps I knew were empty, I started asking him questions about his work.

The more he spoke, the more uncertain I became. Faced with beavers that were seen as a threat to student safety, Mike noted that lethal trapping was the only option since moving live beavers is illegal in Minnesota.

It additionally became clear that Mike doesn’t do this for the money — he does it for free. He thinks that paid trappers end up killing beavers which don’t need to die and resort to cheaper — and problematic — methods like poison. Mike, on the other hand, uses a type of lethal trap which preserves the pelt.

When he does trap a beaver, he makes the most of it. He cooks the meat at home and sells the fur, skull and feet at a local market. For all the hours he puts into trapping beavers throughout Minnesota winter, he doesn’t make much money off the parts he sells: less than $25 per beaver when all is said and done.

Mike traps beavers because he enjoys the sport of it, and he wants it done right. He told me about how farmers usually deal with flooding caused by beavers: “[The farmer] is going to go out and shoot them and leave them [in the field]. So to go out and trap them, at least you are managing a population.” Mike’s doing more than just population control: he’s eating sustainably harvested meat from a creature who had a great life and a fairly humane death.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I became closer friends with Mike, and it became increasingly clear that he had a level of care and love for beavers which surpassed my own — despite working hard some nights to kill them.

Still unsure of what to make of beaver trapping, I decided to dive deeper and enrolled in an independent study on the ethics of beaver management this term. I was intent on figuring out what compelled Carleton to murder the mammals living closer to the heart of campus than students living in Goodhue.

I met with the two people who made the decision to kill the beavers of Lyman Lakes: arboretum head Nancy Braker ‘81 and grounds manager Jay Stadler. After talking with them, I learned that these very kind and hardworking community members had to make a hard decision to solve a hard problem.

Beavers use trees as food and shelter, so it is no surprise that they started munching on the ones around Lyman. Using their teeth reinforced with iron, the Lyman beavers took down more than just a few saplings around the lakes. They started chomping on bigger trees, taking down some over thirty inches across. Most students probably didn’t notice the loss of these trees, in part because the grounds crew quickly removed them since huge trees with toothpicks for trunks posed a safety risk to students.

In years past, arboretum staff have been forced to wade into the muck of Spring Creek to clear the creations of Lyman’s resident engineers. Without this work, the man-made Bell Field would flood and the Goodhue-Evans bridge could be seriously damaged. Yet despite the staff’s long hours and best efforts, the nocturnal beavers had already rebuilt by the next morning.

Faced with no other feasible options, Nancy and Jay reluctantly decided to resort to trapping. They spoke with the local game warden who told them to call up Mike.

I’ve spent the past four months obsessed with the beavers. Even after talking with all the parties involved — including some one-sided conversations with the Lyman beavers themselves — I still don’t know what Carleton should do.

What I do know is that beavers are special. Just as Carleton converted farmland into prairie ecosystems, beavers shape the landscape around them to suit their needs. Faced with land-based predators, beavers evolved to build ponds, partially to access and irrigate more trees without straying too far from an aquatic escape route. In doing so, they’ve left their mark on the landscape and species of North America in ways we are only beginning to understand.

The other thing I know is that regardless of the solution, this dilemma ought to be used as an educational opportunity. While unfortunate, the killing of beavers in our backyard is the perfect chance for the community to come together to appreciate the ecosystem services beavers provide when alive and make the most out of their deaths when they are killed.

It is important to recognize that this is not just a Carleton problem, but a larger Northfield problem. With the collapse of the trapping market, human-beaver conflicts are only going to become more common: Mike has seen an increasing number of calls from locals facing nuisance beavers, ranging from farmers with beavers flooding tens of acres to homeowners upstream from the Arb with destroyed deck posts.

That’s why I’ve organized Beaver Fest — an event this Saturday from 1:30-4:00 p.m. on Mai Fête Island to bring together the Northfield community and have some of these difficult conversations. Beyond beaver games, donuts in the shape of beaver tails and beaver naming, we’ll also have a service project and educational booths.

Join us as we wrap trees around Lyman Lakes with metal wiring to protect them from future beaver damage. Carleton alumnus ​​Dr. Emily Fairfax will be there to discuss her amazing research on how beavers can help fight climate change. And if you want to meet Mike and hear about responsible beaver harvesting, he’ll be there too.

Everyone is welcome — just come with an open mind.

While my crusade to sabotage Mike’s traps ended right after it began, it seems that the beavers are the winners after all. Despite spending dozens of hours setting traps, Mike and I have yet to catch any beavers in Lyman this year. With trapping season ending in just a few days, it appears the Lyman beavers have outwitted us.

Hopefully, by the time the trapping season resumes in October, the Carleton community will have begun the “dam” hard task of finding a nuanced solution to this nuanced problem.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *