Busy beavers a headache for county, state officials

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Here's a problem you don't hear about every day: What do you do when a bunch of busy beavers build a dam which then backs up water to the point that it floods a county road?
   Members of Carter County Highway Department and Gary McWherter of Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency were meeting this morning to discuss the best way to undam a dam with minimal impact to the environment and an eager beaver construction crew.
   Tom Isaacs of Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, County Highway Superintendent Jack Perkins and Carter County Sheriff John Henson met Tuesday on Phil Arnett Lane in the Buck Mountain area of Roan Mountain to survey the problem.
   According to Isaacs, "They've built some beaver dams in the headwaters to Laurel Fork Creek," creating a mess on the one-lane county road leading to a private residence, a tree farm, and U.S. Forest Service property.
   Normally, there is an ankle-deep low-water crossing which stretches across the roadway, Isaacs said, "but now it's about waist deep where the beavers have built their dam downstream and backed water all the way up the channel."
   Isaacs said he spoke with Perkins, who in turn was to talk with TWRA to discuss "what would be the most ecologically sound way to remove the beaver dams."
   McWherter said that while the beavers are not endangered, they are protected. "There are several options but nothing's been decided on yet.
   "It is a common problem, especially in West Tennessee," he said, where beaver dams have caused flooding of railroad tracks. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture employs full-time trappers to trap them. It's really not an uncommon thing -- it is for us, but not statewide."
   Blowing up the dams has been discussed, Isaacs said. "If you can't get equipment in there there's not a whole lot of other options. The way those little critters built those things, they're tough to tear down by hand. They sort of intermesh the branches and criss-cross them. They just do a fantastic job."
   Isaacs said using Carter County Jail's work crew to dismantle the dam also was talked about. But "the sheriff was up there Tuesday and he didn't think that the prisoners could be a big help there just because of the toughness of those little beaver dams. I think when we left, the idea was that maybe they would try their best to deal with it with a backhoe" from the highway department.
   Candace Allen of the U.S. Forest Service said Wednesday that the agency has been concerned with the historic decline in beaver populations in riparian areas.
   "Historically, we know that they were much more common and that they were instrumental in keeping some areas with really rich biological diversity -- the seeps and the damp areas that to some extent we've lost through increased agricultural use in these mountains," Allen said.
   "On a judicious basis, we are trying to, if not encourage them, at least keep them to where they are doing no harm. The problem is we have so many people around any more that it's hard to find a place where they can do their thing and not impact somebody," she said.
   The beavers' laborious efforts aren't always appreciated, according to Isaacs. "They can be pretty destructive. They actually chew all of the trees along the banks and there goes all of your canopy along the banks of the creek, and then they start backing water up by building.
   "They've got to be busy; they don't like to be idle."
   Sheriff Henson said that after highway department and state officials meet, then "I guess we'll go up and do whatever."
   According to the sheriff, the beavers not only have built a dam, "they've got a lake up there. If we have some heavy rains, we're going to be in trouble. They've got it dammed up good. They've been working."
   Henson said he and Perkins first became aware of the situation after water started backing up in the road on Phil Arnett Lane. "You couldn't get across the road. It's up on the doors of a car it's so deep where you cross the road there."
   People who use the road called the county and notified them that they couldn't get in and out, Henson said. The sheriff, Perkins, and state officials met, and according to the sheriff, the state "didn't see any problem with taking a backhoe and tearing out the dam."
   Henson said the tree farm also has been affected by the beavers. "The trees that they didn't cut down, they peeled the bark off and killed them. They've cut down trees that are a foot through. You've always heard it said, 'Work like a beaver.' They've sure put some work in up there.
   "You wouldn't believe that an animal that small could do what they've done, unless you see it. They must have teeth like a chainsaw. They've cut those trees off just as smooth as silk, and they always cut them to where they fall in the water," the sheriff said.
   "If we go in there and tear their dams out, they'll just build them back. If you take them somewhere else, it's going to be the same problem," he said.
   Isaacs said the beavers usually work at night, "so it's hard telling how many are in there. ... If they take down the dam, the beavers will probably scurry either upstream or downstream. If they have to blow it, who knows ..."
   TDEC doesn't actually regulate beaver dams, according to Isaacs, who is with the Water Pollution Control division. "We do take a look at them in case they've been there for a long time, and if they've created a nice wetland then we might have reservations on tearing them out. It's strictly a case-by-case basis."
   Isaacs said the dam is "knee-high or a little higher and probably 20 or 30 feet across," and probably was built this summer.
   The forest service's Allen said she had been down to the end of Phil Arnett Road just a couple months ago and had noticed a beaver pond. "There's very likely more than one or two of them."
   What to do about it? Well, right now, everyone's a little unsure.
   "It hasn't come up that often," Allen said.