How Can We Stop The Beavers?

Controversy is flaring in the Oderbruch region in the German state of Brandenburg, because a thriving beaver population there has been digging into the dikes along the Oder river, weakening the levee and threatening the 20,000 human residents of the marshy area with flooding.

The Oderbruch beavers belong to the “Elbe beaver” family, an endangered species. So conservationists are happy that they’ve found a habitat that suits them. In the rainy season, the Oder dikes offer the beavers the only dry ground available. But the locals, who suffered devastating floods in 1997, are worried. “The beavers need to be pushed back into areas where they can’t do any damage,” says local politician Karsten Birkholz, to Der Spiegel. “The dike is the foundation of our existence. If the levee doesn’t hold, we are as good as gone.”

Birkholz says people are considering destroying the beavers’ lodges, or trapping the beavers and keeping them in modified dog kennels the towns have already bought as a contingency, or, if it comes down to it, shooting the animals. (I do hope you’re appreciating the restraint I’m exercising in re-reporting this story. I’m doing my best to be less stupid.) Such violent measures bring to mind the brutal but extremely effective version of “When the Levee Breaks” that Led Zeppelin played with Neil Young upon their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.

Others, though, advocate a gentler approach. Biologist Matthias Freude, who runs the German Environmental Agency in Potsdam, agrees that it’s a problem. “A beaver doesn’t have any business being at a dike,” he says. But he insists that trapping or killing the beavers won’t work, because it would only draw more beavers into what is obviously beaver-friendly terrain. Strange as it sounds, Freude says, “The best protection against beavers is an occupied beaver habitat. You can live with beavers; you just have to want to.”

So Freude and his fellow beaver-lovers have started inserting wire-mesh fencing into the mud of the embankments to keep the critters from tunneling through. And two “wildlife rescue hills” have been built — alternative high ground the beavers can dig into rather than the dikes. Compared to the Hammer-of-the-Gods squall of the 1995 performance, Freude and his friends’ efforts are like the gorgeously restrained version of “When the Levee Breaks” Robert Plant and his recent partner Allison Krauss did on their 2008 tour. In fact, the building of wildlife rescue hills is a type of “raising sand,” isn’t it? That was the title the duo’s Grammy winning album! Maybe Robert Plant has been planning for me write this ridiculous post all along. (Stop controlling my mind, Robert Plant!)

Who’s right? Both versions are awesome. And it would certainly be bad if the Oderbruch levee broke. But for the sake of the beavers, I vote for Freude’s take. He seems like a nice guy.

Here’s Memphis Minnie’s 1929 recording of “When the Levee Breaks.” She really wrote it, after all.