In the 1940s and 50s, “a struggling, odorous pair of live beavers” could actually help improve fish and wildlife habitat—the trouble was transporting them
This is the story of a beaver named Geronimo and a simpler time, when ingenuity led to rodents parachuting into Idaho’s backcountry.
Yes, I just wrote that sentence, and every word is true.
As modern-day sportsmen and women, we’ve become accustomed to stocked lakes and waterways and heard many tales of capturing and collaring big game animals to study and improve their odds. But, for my money, no wildlife management story is better than Geronimo’s.
It begins in the 1940s, when an abundance of beavers in some areas prompted depredation concerns. According to an article from Idaho Fish and Game employee Elmo W. Heter, the agency was faced with a bevy of beavers and decided to transplant some of the toothy critters into the backcountry. The accepted method at the time was to capture them, truck them to a trailhead, and then pack them by mule train to some unoccupied lush meadow. There, the beaver equivalent of Adam and Eve would be released to do beaver things and get busy making more beavers.
“Beavers usually set up colonies, multiply, and establish important fur-bearing populations,” Heter wrote. “In addition, they do much toward improving the habitats of game, fish, and waterfowl and perform important service in watershed conservation.” The problem with trucks and mules, however, was that beavers died in large numbers because they weren’t suited for the heat of summertime travel.
“Older individuals often become dangerously belligerent,” Heter wrote. “Rough trips on pack animals are very hard on them. Horses and mules become spooky and quarrelsome when loaded with a struggling, odorous pair of live beavers.” (Let me stop here and point out that the problem with present-day Fish and Game reports is that they don’t use enough words like ‘belligerent,’ ‘quarrelsome,’ and ‘odorous.’)
Heter didn’t explain how the department ultimately turned to parachutes—I picture a meeting of bigwigs with diagrams, a wading pool, and model beavers—but in 1948, airdropping the little critters in a backcountry blitzkrieg seemed to be the idea with most promise. (I want to stop here, again, and call upon the mental image of elk and deer on the ground, watching an aerial raid of ruffian rodents.)
Fish and Game officials first experimented with attaching the parachutes to willow boxes, but that effort was abandoned because of fears that the beavers would eat their way out of their airborne box at the most inopportune time. Heter’s crew eventually made a box that broke apart when it hit the ground. But would the beaver die in the process? That was an interesting question for sure.
Enter Geronimo. To test proper drop heights and box designs, Fish and Game officials dropped the male beaver “again and again.”
“Each time he scrambled out of the box, someone was on hand to pick him up,” Heter wrote. “Poor fellow! He finally became resigned, and as soon as we approached him, would crawl back into his box ready to go aloft again.” With Geronimo’s help, Fish and Game learned that the best launch height was between 500 and 800 feet, because it allowed the chute to open properly and still maintain some accuracy in placing the bewildered beavers in a selected meadow.
That year, Fish and Game dropped 76 beavers in the backcountry. There was only one fatality, a beaver that “jumped or fell” from his box at about 75 feet. A year later, observations showed that all airborne transplants were successful. “Beavers had built dams, constructed houses, stored up food, and were well on their way to producing colonies,” Heter wrote.
He said the transportation method showed a marked savings over mules; he claimed they could drop four beavers for $30.
Although we don’t know how many beavers were ultimately transplanted via parachute—or why and when the program was stopped—Heter did say that Geronimo was treated well for his efforts. He “had a priority reservation on the first ship into the hinterland, and three young females went with him,” Heter wrote.
To read Heter’s full account and see a diagram of the beaver boxes, click here. For archive video footage of parachuting beavers, click here. And for the latest on today’s (more sophisticated) conservation initiatives in Idaho and across the West, keep following the TRCP.
Much of this story appeared in the Idaho Falls Post Register on Dec. 11, 2014 (read the original here), but it never gets old.