As a recent arrival to the Sheepscot headwaters neighborhood I did not initially appreciate the significance my new friends placed on the damage that was done when Montville road maintenance folks accidentally undermined a corner of the beaver dam while clearing a culvert. The bog was drained but I was confident from experience that eventually the beavers would be back.
What I did not know was that the Sheepscot Wellspring Land Alliance (SWLA, locals all say “swalla”) was born in this place. That beaver lodge sitting in the middle of a gorgeous bog-scape is the symbolic heart of SWLA. Knowing something of the history of the four organizations that recently merged to become the Midcoast Conservancy might help all of us better appreciate what drives the passions of the diverse membership in our much-enlarged family.
Years ago, back in 1990, someone purchased this beautiful wetland to harvest adjacent timber. This peaceful place is a substantial component of the Sheepscot River’s headwaters. No one would give this man access to haul out timber, so he built an illegal road right across the bog. That incident, which I have neither the time nor knowledge to recount here, led to his neighbors coming together to buy the bog. It was the first of many acres now protected in the headwaters. That is how SWLA was born.
When the bog drained last summer, it was an emotional loss for the SWLA community. For those most directly involved in saving that wetland it was especially devastating. But just as the initial threat had brought people together, this latest event has renewed and rekindled the passion and energy that makes the “Swalla family” so special. Almost immediately neighbors in Montville, Freedom and Liberty began meeting to strategize. We all shared an appreciation of beavers and the role they play in creating the diverse habitats, the healthy ecosystems we so love. We were equally aware that beavers and humans have a history, and where Mother Nature’s “Corps of Engineers” meet road maintenance crews there are often major conflicts.
We wanted to prevent future “beaver wars.” After some research and discussion with the staff at the Midcoast Conservancy the SWLA council arranged for Vermonter Skip Lisle to build one of his famous “Beaver Deceivers” to prevent our toothy bog residents from damming the drains beneath Halldale Road. When it looked like funds to build the Beaver Deceiver were not available until next year the Sheepscot Headwaters Council came up with the money to get going. Skip started work on Wednesday November 2nd and finished up in a steady rain the next day. He told me he was impressed, even amazed, at the number of people who stopped by to show support and express delight that something positive was being done to protect the beavers.
None of us knew that when Skip was a grad student many years ago he had done research on all the wetlands in Montville. He has since dedicated his life to building devices, each site specific, that discourage beavers from following their strong instincts to dam flowing water. He even includes “doors” that allow turtles, beavers and other migrating wildlife to access the under-road passages without enabling them to bring in materials that could obstruct water flow.
After spending a day and a half observing and assisting this ‘Saint Francis of the Beavers’ I can attest to his deep knowledge of beaver behavior and what stimulates their building instincts. He understands what causes them to feel vulnerable enough to abandon their efforts and seek better opportunities. Most devices intended to discourage beavers soon fail. In frustration “Plan B” is too often traps, guns, and even dynamite.
Skip Lisle will be returning on February 24th to give a presentation at Midcoast Conservancy about beavers (learn more here) and their value in maintaining healthy ecosystems for other wildlife. He has much to share about human interactions with these fascinating animals, and his life work reducing the conflict between these two very hard working, stubborn species.
Sheepscot Headwaters Council Member