When a family of beavers took up residence in a retention pond in Burlington’s Centennial Woods this past fall, field naturalist Teage O’Connor saw it as a learning opportunity: His students could watch the animals up close.
But the University of Vermont viewed their new tenants — and the dam they built — as a nuisance. Worried about flooding, the university this month set lethal traps to kill the large, semiaquatic rodents.
At least one of the four beavers — an adult male that O’Connor nicknamed Melvin — is already dead. Now O’Connor and others are calling for the university to halt the trapping until spring, when the beavers could be relocated.
O’Connor, a 29-year-old adjunct professor at UVM and the Community College of Vermont, lives a stone’s throw from Centennial Woods, a natural area sandwiched between the main campus of UVM, which manages the area, and Interstate 89. The woods serve as O’Connor’s outdoor laboratory for a class he teaches at UVM called “Natural History of Centennial Woods.”
O’Connor estimates he and his students have spent hundreds of hours observing the beavers over the last four years, in the pond and elsewhere in Centennial Woods.
But apparently the animals went unnoticed by UVM staff — that is, until an engineer hired by the university noticed their handiwork in the pond on November 28. That’s when Bill Nedde of the Colchester firm Krebs and Lansing noticed the beavers had plugged the pond’s main outlet. One large storm, Nedde explained in an email, and the pond could spill over, flooding infrastructure downstream and causing damaging erosion.
By the time Nedde noticed the beavers, it was too late in the season to move them to a new location. The animals had already stockpiled their cache of winter food and would likely starve if relocated. After consulting with the United States Department of Agriculture’s animal control unit in Barre and with state Fish and Wildlife game warden Jenna Reed, UVM decided the best solution was lethal trapping. In early December, the university hired a licensed trapper who set three conibear traps — large, steel devices used to catch fur-bearing animals — around the retention pond.
On December 7, O’Connor discovered the traps on a well-trafficked beaver path near the pond. He also found and removed the body of the first dead beaver, Melvin. He broke the news to his students and notified his neighbors via Front Porch Forum about the potential danger the traps posed for family pets.
The next day, the traps were gone. UVM spokesman Enrique Corredera guesses that “somebody stole them.” O’Connor vows it wasn’t him.
While their mysterious disappearance bought the remaining beavers a brief reprieve, Corredera says the university has made arrangements to have new traps placed “as soon as possible.”
“There have been discussions with university faculty members regarding possible alternatives, and we are open to exploring long-term solutions,” Corredera wrote in an email. “Unfortunately the current situation requires a more immediate solution and we have not been able to identify a viable short-term alternative.”
On a recent walk to the beaver pond with O’Connor, the water was mostly covered in a thin layer of ice, through which the beavers had broken a narrow channel between their lodge and the dammed pond drain. A fence topped with barbed wire ringed the pond, and power lines cut over the water. O’Connor said two of the beavers first began constructing their lodge here in early June. They left for part of the summer but returned at the end of September. A month later, the beavers “adopted” a second mating pair.
“This isn’t great habitat for beavers,” said O’Connor, as he tromped through the woods bordering the pond.
All around O’Connor were obvious signs of beaver activity: toppled trees, gnawed stumps and a stockpile of food to last the winter partially submerged in the ice. Because of the dam, the pond was about four feet higher than it would be normally. Given such telltale signs, O’Connor said he couldn’t understand how the beavers went unnoticed by university staff until this month.
UVM grounds officials declined to comment for the story, directing all questions to Corredera. Rick Paradis, who is in charge of Centennial Woods and UVM’s eight other natural areas, noted the pond isn’t within his jurisdiction; it’s technically just outside of the designated Centennial Woods natural area. He said he got the news about the beavers when he was copied on an email from Nedde.
O’Connor has gone to great lengths to study and befriend the beavers. He set up a game camera to catch the animals at night, gnawing their way through trees and carting food down to the pond. He posted the footage to his blog, Wild Burlington, but UVM grounds crew have since removed his camera, claiming it was an “unauthorized placement.”
“He had cultivated such a close relationship with them that he could feed them by hand,” remarks Alicia Daniel, another adjunct professor in UVM’s environmental program. “It’s a little bit like a Jane Goodall situation.”
Beavers don’t have many natural predators, says O’Connor, which means they’re fairly easy to tame. O’Connor has visited the Centennial beavers so often that he believes they recognize his voice. When canoeing last summer on the Winooski River, O’Connor says Melvin popped up and looked him in the eye — a gesture O’Connor interpreted as the beaver saying hello.
“When I take students out there, and they’re seeing a beaver for the first time five feet away from them, their eyes just light up. They don’t breathe for 30 seconds, because they’re totally in awe of this wild creature that has trusted them,” says O’Connor. “That for me is something that doesn’t exist in books, and it doesn’t exist in classrooms or lectures or PowerPoints. It can only exist by allowing yourself to be out in wildness.”
The decision to trap the beavers has dismayed some of O’Connor’s students. Ryan Pizzutillo, a 22-year-old CCV student in O’Connor’s “Natural History of Vermont” class, believes UVM could or should have known the beavers had moved into the pond sooner, before it was too late to relocate them. “I think what UVM is doing is kind of outrageous,” he says.
What other options does the university have? Relocating the animals in the spring is one option but comes with its own potential problems. Beavers are creatures of habit, says O’Connor, and introducing them to a new habitat can cause stress and additional competition for resources. If left alone, O’Connor suspects the beavers would have found a new home next spring or summer, anyway, because “the habitat is too marginal.”
Another option is installing “beaver baffles” or “beaver deceivers” — manmade additions that either prevent beavers from building dams or divert water through the blockages.
O’Connor worries that UVM’s solution — traps set around the pond — could snare mink, fox, raccoon and deer that pass through Centennial Woods, not to mention dogs and cats. UVM has routinely left unlocked the gate on the fence around the pond, he says.
More broadly, O’Connor criticizes UVM for what he sees as a lack of transparency in making the decision to trap the beavers — apparently done without input from students, faculty and neighbors who use the natural area.
“I’d love to find a way of integrating community voice and student voice into management decisions,” he says. “It’s going to make it a lot slower, but it’s going to make it a lot richer an experience … and it will make the decisions that we make more sound ecologically and emotionally.”
Paradis concedes it might make sense to involve more people in decisions about Centennial Woods. “We have to take a close look at how effectively we’re managing these natural areas and how we could do better,” he says. It’s not clear whether that would have helped the beavers, who jumped the Centennial Woods boundary when they moved into the retention pond.
For her part, Daniel blames the situation on a lack of communication and a failure to fully explore alternatives. It’s not a “bad guy, good guy story,” she says.
“I’d like to think that there could be some middle ground,” she says. With the beavers soon heading under the ice for winter, she continues, the university has a chance to “take a deep breath” and look at the situation again in the spring.
But if the university keeps setting traps for them, the beavers might not have that long.