The chill, windswept tip of South America must have seemed, to a Canadian, the perfect place for a profitable beaver colony. It took some convincing, but in 1946, Argentine President Perón authorized the introduction of 25 breeding beaver couples from Manitoba, Canada, to the island of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. He even paid pilot Tom Lamb US$650 per animal, much coveted for their fur.
Such a deal. Today, an estimated 250,000 of their descendants have spread far beyond Lake Fagnano, in the middle of Tierra del Fuego, where they were originally introduced. They’ve even swum the Beagle Channel, establishing colonies on several islands and the Brunswick Peninsula, part of continental Chile.
Though the beavers were originally brought here for their thick pelts, still a profitable business in Canadian wilderness, there was an unforeseen problem. The milder, moister Patagonian winters simply didn’t require the thick, fluffy winter coat, and the thin summer pelt isn’t used by furriers. Argentine hunters earn around US$2 per pelt, compared to between US$35 and $50 in Canada.
Without human hunters, the beavers had no natural predators in South America. They still construct the architecturally incredible dams that served as protection in Canada, and which cause incredible destruction here. To make matters worse, they’ve begun eating fish—unheard of in North America—and now grow significantly larger than their herbivorous Canadian cousins. These huge beavers are building ever larger floodplains and fortresses—some 100 meters (328 feet) long—to feed their numbers.
“Its natural predator is the bear. So they should have brought the bear too,” local lumberyard owner Manuel Berbel told the BBC. “The day is going to come when they’re going to be the only ones left here and we’re all going to have to leave. It will become the island of the beavers.”
This sentiment may seem a tad hysterical, but keep in mind that South American trees do not regenerate back from their roots as North American trees do, which means these huge dams transform once-pristine streams into stagnant bogs, hurting indigenous wildlife. (Except, incidentally, the puye fish, which is thriving.)
While tourism often serves to protect pristine environments, travelers seem to have a soft spot for invasive species that are this fat, photogenic, and downright adorable. Despite the destruction, Ushuaia beavers are now superstars, feature creatures that are upstaging local penguins and seals on pricey wildlife tours. Heck, even the Tierra del Fuego National Park offers hiking on Sendero Castorera—Beaver Colony trail. Kids love it. Which makes the proposed solution that much more problematic.
“It looks like bulldozers steamed through,” explained ecologist Josh Donlan in 2008, when proposing what Nature magazine called the “largest eradication project ever attempted.”
Earlier attempts to cull and control the population have failed. “There is no hunting culture,” biologist Laura Malmierca told the Washington Post, noting that many of the people who settled here were from cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. The gamey meat, while edible, doesn’t really appeal to Argentina’s beef connoisseurs. “It’s dark-colored, it’s a little bit tough, it takes a long time to cook. It’s not amazing,” local restaurant owner Ezequiel Rodriguez told NPR.
This leaves one final solution; you have to make sure you eradicate them all. “If you have even two beavers, they could repopulate the whole archipelago,” says Christopher Anderson of the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity in Santiago, Chile. “We’ll have to move in on the beavers in a rolling front, going from watershed to watershed to remove them, with a massive monitoring program behind it to make sure they have all been eradicated.”
Can Argentina or Chile muster the political will to take on one of the world’s cutest critters? Time will tell, and all of Patagonia is at stake.