Manitoba

Beavers turning Interlake farmlands into flooded 'war zone,' cattle producer says

Beaver numbers in Manitoba's Interlake have some farmers worried the pudgy creature will continue taking bites out of their bottom line unless the province does more to control the population.

Communities in Riding Mountain National Park area also complaining about high number of beavers

Farmers are upset in some Interlake communities as beaver numbers are booming and flooding out agricultural land. (Rick Price Photography)

Beaver numbers in Manitoba's Interlake have some farmers worried the pudgy creature will continue taking bites out of their bottom line unless the province does more to control the population.

"They're a rodent. They're destroying a lot of cattle operations up here," said 32-year-old David Gall, a cattle producer near Moosehorn in the rural municipality of Fisher, about 200 kilometres north of Winnipeg. 

"The population is exploding and there's just really nothing there to keep them at bay.… It looks like a war zone."

They're amazing creatures, what they can accomplish, but blowing the dams doesn't work. It doesn't solve any problems because they just keep rebuilding it.- Cattle producer David Gall

Beavers have been causing major issues on the Crown land Gall uses near a wildlife management area where his cattle graze.

Flooded pastures associated with beaver dams have forced a lot of cattle farmers to uproot and move on in the past 15 years — an opportunity Gall seized to expand his operation.

He snatched up about 1,200 hectares of land those producers left behind, but things haven't gone as planned. Much of it is no longer good for his cattle.

"We've doubled the amount of land we're using and halved the amount of cattle," he said.

Dry land becomes wet land

Gall's family settled in the area in the 1920s, when he says his grandfather almost never saw beavers around. Land where his father built cattle fencing in the 1970s that used to be dry is now under two metres of water, he said.

A beaver scales one of its dams. (Rick Price Photography)

Gall is only able to graze 200 cattle where 400 used to forage in hay meadows near Sleeve Lake, as 1,600 to 2,000 hectares have become inaccessible due to flooding he associates with beaver activity. 

"One of these days we're going to get a major storm and those dams are going to break, and the RM of Fisher is going to be in a disaster stage because that water is all going to come at once," Gall said.

Dan Meisner, a councillor with the rural municipality of Grahamdale, also blames the keystone species for flooded lands and damaged infrastructure in his community west of Fisher. Beavers can plug culverts or dam up streams, which in turn may cause erosion beneath rail and roadways.

"Lots of acres under water," said Meisner, who is also a trapper and personally killed 400 beavers in one recent trapping season.

The municipality is in the middle of a wet cycle, Meisner says, and has spent upwards of $69,000 in the past four years removing beavers and dams. Farmers and cattle producers in his municipality continue to ask him why more isn't being done to thin out the beaver population.

"They want us to do more and more all the time on it, but we're limited to what we can do," he said. "They build in hard-to-get areas, so if you want to go and get a beaver, it takes a dedicated trapper to go in and work for you. We don't have that many of them."

Government favours beavers, producer says

The province's Farmland Beaver Damage Control program, which is in its final year, subsidizes beaver and dam removal on private property and agricultural land, but Gall says there's too much red tape involved in getting an application approved. 

"The way that the government is set up, the beavers and animals are more important than the producers that actually supply the food for people to eat," he said.

The government spent about $160,000 during the 2015-16 fiscal year removing dams and more than 5,600 nuisance beavers. A small amount of that money went toward the installation of "beaver deceivers" and "pond levellers."

The non-lethal methods are meant to deter beavers from building dams and can be set up by culverts or used to divert water through existing dams.

To his knowledge, Meisner said such non-lethal methods aren't commonly used in the Interlake.

Few young trappers

Lloyd Ewashko, reeve of the Harrison Park municipality — located south of Riding Mountain National Park — said the first pond leveller he helped install jointly with Parks Canada is still "doing its job perfectly," 15 years on. 

"In some cases they are a long-term solution, in some cases they're not," Ewashko said, adding the devices require regular maintenance.

His community is also grappling with beaver problems; an 84-year-old trapper in the municipality's employ has already taken out 120 beavers this year, mostly near roads and culverts.

Trappers nearly wiped beavers out in Riding Mountain in the early 1900s, which later prompted Parks Canada to reintroduce them to the park. They subsequently damaged significant elk habitat in the park and moved further afield, beyond the park's boundaries and into places like Harrison Park.

"They've increased tenfold," he said.

A 2016 aerial survey found about 15,000 beavers lived in Riding Mountain National Park that year, a Parks Canada spokesperson said.

Ewashko said non-lethal deterrents "buy you time" in most cases and are just one part of the equation. Trappers still play a vital role in managing problem beaver populations, he said, but low pelt prices over the past few decades mean there are fewer young people trapping.

"We don't have any young trappers anymore," he said. "There is no young trappers to take over ... the value of the pelts, it's just not worth it."

Full-time trapper needed

Meanwhile, Gall feels cattle producers and farmers are being ignored.

"Our municipality has been just fighting because the water keeps coming up and they're trying to keep the roads, the infrastructure going, but it's just hard because half the time the roads are underwater."

Gall said the province needs to hire a full-time trapper to go around to all of the problem areas and remove the animals.

"Our provincial agriculture minister has said his goal is to double the cattle production in Manitoba, and it's never going to happen until the beavers are taken care of," he said.

Gall said he's never personally removed any dams, but he estimates it would cost upwards of $2,000 a day to hire someone with an excavator to destroy a dam. Besides, he says, destroying dams is often just a Band-Aid solution.

"When you remove a beaver dam, however you do it, if you come back the next day they will have rebuilt it," he said. "They're amazing creatures, what they can accomplish, but blowing the dams doesn't work. It doesn't solve any problems because they just keep rebuilding it."

CBC News has asked the province for an estimate on Manitoba's current beaver population.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, climate, health and more. He has produced episodes for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

With files from Radio Noon

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