Put yourself in William Patrick's soggy shoes for a moment. When the Texas-born writer bought a 1677 farmhouse in Ipswich, Mass., two years ago, the neighborhood's thriving beaver colony seemed part of its charm. Since then the beavers have been busy damming everything that flows. Now two of Patrick's four acres--farmland for three centuries--are underwater, and towering pines next to the house have begun crashing to earth. "The beavers are turning our whole yard into a swamp," fumes Patrick, 52. "They're not smart. They're obsessive-compulsive. They hear water, and they have to dam it."
Once driven nearly to extinction by rampant fur trapping and forest clearing, beavers are colonizing large swaths of North America where people don't remember seeing them. Since Massachusetts banned lethal leg-hold traps in 1996, the state's beaver population has tripled, to 70,000. North Carolina may have half a million, Manitoba twice as many. From Maine to Alaska, California to the Carolinas, the beaver's numbers are exploding.
So too are complaints from property owners, many of them ardent environmentalists who like beavers in principle but not necessarily in their backyards. They know that beavers help create wetlands, those ecologically vital landscapes that Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Leavitt calls "nature's kidneys." But, like hiring Hell's Angels to work security, relying on the continent's chubbiest rodents to put your landscape in order is not always a good idea.
If you're standing in beaver territory, you had better be wearing hip boots. An ungainly waddler ashore, Castor canadensis spends 80% of its life in water, where it's as agile as a 50-lb. minnow. Dam building is its way of making the world a wetter, safer and more convenient place. Only humans alter their environment more drastically.
But humans aren't aquatic. Most of us, in fact, wish the world were dryer, not wetter, and flooding tops the list of human grievances against the beaver. By raising water levels, its unkempt but admirably watertight dams can flood basements, swamp sewer systems, spoil trout streams and even derail trains.
Complaint No. 2 is the beaver's maniacal devotion to felling trees, which provide it with food and building material. An adult can gnaw through a tree six inches in diameter in 15 minutes. In the Southeast, beavers cause millions of dollars of damage to timber forests every year. In 1999 a squad of bucktoothed renegades in Washington started toppling cherry trees along the Tidal Basin, putting at risk the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. (When the National Park Service relocated the colony to an undisclosed location, then Idaho Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth, a die-hard foe of reintroducing the wolf and grizzly in the West, demanded the Tidal Basin be declared "habitat critical to its well-being and survival" and the return of the beavers.)