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Beaver count feared low in South Dakota's Black Hills

Officials with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks reported to the GFP Commission this week that they're entertaining undertaking another aerial study of riparian reaches of the forested Black Hills to ascertain the number of beavers. Informal estimates among staff fear the count has dropped in recent years.

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BROOKINGS, S.D. —The situation for beavers in the Black Hills has been better, state officials say.

Mike Klosowski, a regional supervisor with Game, Fish and Parks, told the monthly meeting of the GFP Commission on Thursday, Dec. 9 that a $30,000 helicopter survey of the Black Hills, scouring for signs of beavers, might aid the state in finding out just how many beavers are still residing in the region.

Calls for beaver removals by landowners in the Hills suggest not many anymore.

"Anecdotally ... it was an overwhelming opinion [of GFP staff] that they are seeing less beaver activity," said Klosowski. He stopped short of identifying the main reason for the decline, but cited loss of habitat as one potential culprit. "A lot of different things can play into that."

South Dakota state officials found records of a beaver tally in the Black Hills as early as 1946 with indications that the beaver numbers had "issues" even as early as the late 19th century. That report, they say, compelled locals to prohibit trapping in order to protect the semiaquatic rodents.

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Trent Haffley, a regional terrestrial resources supervisor, said that beavers are a " management indicator species " under guidance set by the U.S. Forest Service, meaning their prosperity reflects the health of the broader environment.

The last beaver count in the Black Hills proper happened in 2012, turning up 60 cache sites, nearly double the 38 cache sites counted by observers in a count just five years earlier. Haffley estimated the particularly wet years immediately prior 2012 aided the beaver locally.

But for the last decade, there has been no count. Haffley suggested a range of years be studied to fully understand how many beavers reside in the region while accounting for fluctuations in moisture.

The commission, who had requested the report, did not vote on Thursday to accept or deny any survey. But they did suggest that staff be slower to employ "lethal removal" of beavers from the habitat, when not causing imminent harm to property.

"[If the beavers are] cutting down a couple of maple trees in the area, [maybe] we look at in that situation simply providing technical assistance to make sure those beavers aren't going to cut down trees," said Klosowski.

Beaver trapping in the state is possible between Jan. 1 and March 31 on federal land and Nov. 1 and April 30 on non-Forest Service land.

This summer, the commission entertained a proposal of a year-round beaver season. But even then, commissioners noted survey data on beaver population is dated.

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