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Beavers at Lake Mead? Evidence says yes


Travel through Nevada long enough, and you’ll see some remarkable things.

A few years ago, folks in Goldfield awoke to news that a young black bear had wandered into their high desert community. The bear, experts thought, had gotten disoriented and had walked all the way from Utah to Goldfield, perhaps believing it might be served at the Santa Fe Saloon.

On a long walk this past weekend on part of the scenic River Mountains Loop Trail just outside Boulder City, I came across one of those remarkable and admittedly strange things: a dead beaver.

The loop trail is easily one of Southern Nevada’s treasures. The paved path stretches 31 miles across the upper end of Hemenway Wash, through rolling hills covered in greasewood and cactus. Along the way, the trail offers stunning pastel views of Lake Mead that change in sun and shadow throughout the day.

The beaver was about a quarter mile down from the Pacifica Way Trailhead. That’s about a three-mile walk from the lakeshore.

Although my reading of the region’s history is admittedly spotty in many places, I always believed the animal was essentially trapped out of existence on the Colorado River a century ago.

That must have been news to the beaver, which appears to have wandered a long distance in search of forage. It was within a few hundred yards of custom homes.

It turns out I’m not the only one surprised to spot a beaver at Lake Mead. In 2011, bass angler Don Hilton posted a YouTube video of a beaver hut at Lake Mead. And in 2012, a fisherman spotted one at the lake and was so astounded he blogged about it on www.bigfishtackle.com.

Under the moniker “Ihuntforfish,” he wrote that he saw, “a giant shadow swim past. I thought it was the biggest leatherback turtle I’d ever seen. It swam under some trees beside me, and I started tossing corn at it to try and pull it in. Well, 10 minutes go by and it swims back out from the trees and pops its head out of the water … it’s a huge beaver, and it’s swimming straight toward me.”

It was swimming toward him because the fisherman was standing on his home. In fact, he stepped through a weak spot in the beaver’s hut, and was briefly an unannounced visitor.

“I’ve heard of beavers once being at Lake Mead, but never knew they were still part of the ecology,” he wrote. “Anyone else ever had a beaver encounter at the lake?”

As a matter of fact, Doug Nielsen of the Nevada Wildlife Department has Lake Mead beaver tails. Many readers will know Doug from his popular outdoor column in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

In the two decades Nielsen has been with the department, much of that spent on the lake, he has encountered the animals on a dozen occasions. And, yes, he was also shocked the first time he spotted one in the early 1990s.

He worked as a game warden at Lake Mead and would on rare occasions see them, but only in isolated areas far from most of the angling and water skiing crowd.

“I was completely caught off guard,” recalls Nielsen, who is the department’s conservation educator. “It was just after I’d started with the department. We were near Bonelli Bay. I was absolutely shocked by it. The biologist I was with laughed at me and said, ‘Oh, yeah, there are beavers in here.’

“I can confirm there are beavers in Lake Mead, but to have one that far from the water is really unusual.”

What would have caused it to wander that far from the lake?

Hunger, perhaps. But Nielsen also wouldn’t rule out a human element. Maybe some well-meaning folks thought they were doing the animal a favor by moving it to a more comfortable habitat. And there’s always the possibility someone trapped it, and then had second thoughts.

“I don’t see anything in that wash that would lead a beaver to leave Lake Mead,” Nielsen said. “Why he would strike out up that wash, I have no idea.”

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

Video by Don Hilton/YouTube