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for people who care about the West

A subdivision on the edge of the wild

 

The subdivision in Utah where I live is bang up against the mountains, with open land between us and the Snowbasin ski resort, and more national forest beyond. Our house lies at the end of a cul-de-sac on a tributary of the Weber River. A steep hill flanks us to the south, thick with Gambel oaks, and scrubby brush chokes the vacant lot upstream.

In the summer we feel closed off from the world.

When we have the sense to stop whatever we’re doing, we sit, look and listen.  Ducklings get separated from parents and raft the spring floods. Cutthroat trout leap up the broken concrete that constitutes the five-foot-falls under our bridge.

I’ve never seen a fish make the jump, and the pool below the falls is full of trout all summer long.  But every year there are fingerlings upstream, so some agile swimmers make it.  Minks, escapees most likely from the local fur farms, sometimes course up the banks.  On one hot day a 5-foot rattlesnake looped his tail around a cottonwood and drank from the creek.

Our location on the margins means that we attract transients. After Eastern blue jays made an appearance, our report to the Audubon Society yielded knots of shy birders hoping for a glimpse of this creature -- as common as an English sparrow in my New York hometown. The first blue jay came to a messy end. A sharp-shinned hawk, much like the one that crashed into our glass doors and knocked itself out, loitered near the bird feeder.  When we approached, the hawk flopped away to reveal its grasp of a blue victim. 

Moose are less bloody, if more destructive.  A half-grown bull once backed my sheepdog into his doghouse, flinging dinner-plate hooves around his head, then looked down at him as if to say, “Now, stay there.” No dummy, the dog did.

Cow and calf pairs of moose give our apple trees the only pruning they ever get; the cows can strip a branch like a kid scraping the last of a popsicle off a stick.  Our fruit yield has improved ever since.  Often the only evidence of moose presence is a deep footprint, some chewed twig-ends and a fresh, moose-turd pie.

These visits from the local cast of wild creatures are mostly welcome, but we’re less happy with others.  The birdfeeders nourished a colony of rats, despite our cats and the local strays.  We had high hopes for an ermine exterminator that spent an hour racing along the rats’ winter trails, but he was never seen again.  We finally broke the back of the rat insurgency with a battery-powered “zapper” trap.

The real trouble came as a surprise, but it shouldn’t have. Two years ago I noticed freshly cut cottonwood branches floating downstream and assumed that the neighbors had done some pruning.  My mother-in-law suggested beavers.  She’s a lovely woman, but notorious for her colorful imagination, so at first, I didn’t take her remark seriously. A closer look at the branches, however, showed unmistakable signs of chisel-like teeth, and that night the dog and I heard a loud slap of a tail.  

This posed a dilemma.  Our screen of trees was clearly threatened.  Just as clearly, beavers belonged here.  Their ponds provide excellent habitat for fish; the dams capture sediment and help create rich soil. And maybe they would target my neighbor’s tamarisk, planted at the suggestion of an irresponsible nurseryman.

There are also historical symmetries.  In 1825, rival British and American fur-trapping parties almost came to blows a mile from our house.  Peter Skene Ogden, the British Hudson’s Bay Company leader, had orders to create a “fur desert,” but he retreated and the Americans took over. Eventually, there were no beaver left to be trapped.

Now the beavers were back, and I was worried. Their infant dam was rising in a subdivision, and the resulting pond could flood my basement. I contemplated calling animal control while I wrapped chicken wire around our trees but guessed that the authorities would turn out with guns, traps or poison. In the end, I chose cowardice and decided to let nature take its course.

Then all beaver activity stopped; I assumed that one of the neighbors had taken action.  Then a week later fresh lengths of sapling floated in the pool, and that night the dog and I heard another decisive slap on the water -- the return of the native.  I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Jeff Nichols is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He teaches history at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.