You know right away when you see it. The trunk of a beech tree painted gray for the first four feet from the ground. But not every tree, just certain designated survivors. The rest are up to the whims of fancy. This is beaver country.
The paint itself is latex paint, the color doesn’t matter to the beaver, but it does to us. Something that somewhat matches the tree is a nice touch, with enough contrast to recognize from afar that that’s the painted one. But paint alone doesn’t do enough to turn off the beaver, according to the Beaver Institute (!) you’ve got to mix in 20 ounces of mason sand per gallon of latex paint. That makes the bark an unpleasant sandpaper texture that even the hungriest beaver is going to turn their nose at. And in theory that saves the tree.
Humans and beavers don’t always get along well. They were relentlessly hunted by Native Americans for trade with Europeans in the early 1600’s, and those Daniel Boone hats made a fashion statement even as they kept your head warm and dry. Beaver trappers and hunters wiped out the population in New England and New York over the next couple of centuries.
According to an interview I read with Ben Goldfarb posted on NENC, there was a time in the early 1900’s when they tried to reintroduce the beaver to New England but simply couldn’t find any active colonies to build off of. They tried New York and they didn’t have enough either. So they acquired some Canadian beavers and some beaver from Yellowstone and relocated twenty of them to New York. Eleven years later they had 15,000 beaver and the population has skyrocketed since. Beavers can have 3-5 kits during the winter months, so that’s some serious beaver mating to achieve that kind of exponential growth.
They don’t just gnaw them down to make nests; this is their food source. Beaver range in size from 30-100 pounds, and they need to eat to keep that beach body. The average beaver eats about 200 trees per year, from saplings to the bigger trees. They prefer aspen, alder, willow and other soft wood deciduous trees. That’s a whole lotta trees. So proactively painting a few with that paint/sand mix is a good way to preserve a few of them while offering up the rest as sacrificial lambs.
I wondered at this as I walked amongst the trees along the Moss Glen Brook in Vermont over the weekend. The beaver were clearly busy stocking up their food supply for winter, with several downed trees scattered about near the brook. And here amongst them were the designated survivors with gray paint and sand mix. A wonderful curiosity that demonstrated the health of the beaver population in this area. Welcome back.