Furry history lesson
Thirty years ago, Chico was in a similar situation when two beavers moved to town
When beavers earlier this month built dams near the Five Mile Recreation Area that blocked flow to Big Chico Creek, their activity made news, but it turns out a variation of the dam theme played out 30 years ago, when two beavers built a dam just upstream from the Warner Street bridge in the center of the Chico State campus.
The intruding Chico Creek Two, the moniker they earned when it won first prize in a name-the-beavers contest sponsored by The Orion student newspaper (the winner earned a free dinner at La Fonda restaurant), captured the hearts of students who thought them appealing and educational.
Campus administrators held a different view. “I’m certainly not an expert on beavers,” said Guy Besnard, associate vice president for administration at the time, “but I have consulted experts, and they advised me to have them moved.” He said the creatures had felled cottonwood trees along the creek, and the backed-up water was weakening the root systems of other trees. He worried that the beavers would fell more trees and that their burrowing would cause a sidewalk to collapse.
Following administration orders, groundskeepers removed several standing trees, reasoning that such controlled cutting was better than leaving it to the beavers. The action upset biology professors who said the cutting crew had caused more damage than the beavers would cause in months or even years. On Nov. 3, 1978, President Stanford Cazier ordered the animals moved.
Fourteen biology professors challenged the administration’s position by signing a petition asking that the beavers be left alone so observers could learn their intent. Also, they provided a living biology and mammalogy lab for students. The department would even offer one unit of credit for beaver study.
Meanwhile, wire services and major newspapers picked up the story, some saying that Chico State enjoyed the distinction of being the only college in the nation graced by in-residence beavers. A Sacramento radio station sent a tall man in a beaver suit and tennis shoes to cavort around campus to “help the beavers in their fight for freedom.” With the station’s call letters emblazoned on the front of the suit, he stopped students to ask their opinions.
Encouraged by “Mellow Beaver,” as he named himself, listeners called in with suggestions about how to handle the situation, some of which were:
• Give the beavers honorary engineering degrees to get them to leave campus.
• Inform the beavers that Sacramento State has a better dental plan.
• Leave the beavers where they are but move Chico State.
• Set aside a place for the beavers, possibly by building a pen in and around the creek.
The Orion reported that one “aquatic” biology professor advised Cazier that fighting the beavers might prove endless because the species was increasing its numbers since the state Department of Fish and Game had made trapping them illegal some years earlier. Indeed, nobody on campus had beaver trapping credentials, so the fish and game people would have to move the animals.
The student newspaper also reported that two biology students had taken to operating a limited menu room service of sorts for the animals by serving them with willow branches and cottonwood cuttings from the Sacramento River area so they would not gnaw more trees.
What was developing into a standoff ended when a graduate biology student revealed to a growing protest crowd in the Free Speech Area that when Annie Bidwell provided the deed for Bidwell Park, she stipulated that the creek always be kept in its natural state. What could be more natural than beavers living and working in the creek, he asked rhetorically. Indeed, it seemed Annie had made the creek banks part of the park, not part of the campus. The impassioned group moved to Cazier’s office to confront the president who, after some discussion, reversed his beaver eviction order.
In the end, nature took its course. The beavers overbuilt the dam top in high water, and it washed out. The furry engineers moved downstream rather than try to repair it.