Battling Over The Almighty Beaver

Sometimes a species other than man plays God with the ecological balance. To build a dam on the Truckee River in downtown Reno, Nev., a phalanx of 120 beavers ravaged a two-mile stretch of cottonwood trees, extending to the outskirts of town. By damaging 90 percent of the trees, the beavers endangered the homes of 135 species of birds and 40 species of mammals, as well as countless fish that rely on the shade to survive in the summer heat. Conservationists demanded action. But when wildlife biologists suggested extermination, other activists put pressure on state officials. "I made it very clear that it was my desire that they exhaust every conceivable option before extermination," says Gov. Bob Miller. "Only the Almighty has the ultimate determination."

The problem has been to come up with feasible earthly solutions. Biologists scoff at mass sterilization, arguing that it would traumatize the beavers and cost $200 for each procedure. Other ideas are no less impractical: David Prather, head of the Truckee Meadows Earth Club. suggested shipping the animals, to his mother's property in, Pennsylvania--a plan vetoed by the Eastern state's wildlife officials. As a stopgap, the Nevada Humane Society is organizing tree-wrapping days during which volunteers cover 1,700 potentially endangered trees with a protective layer of chicken wire, at a cost of $10 each. "Wrapping is something we will have to do on a continual basis," warns Rich Heap of the wildlife department. Officials fear the flat-tailed rodents might eventually pollute the city's water supply--and lose all I public sympathy. "The river cannot sustain the deluge," says fish conservationist John Champion. "Beavers are not the cute characters [in] hard hats that we see in Saturday morning cartoons."