Beginning around the middle of the 16th century, felt manufactured from the fine undercoat shaved from the pelt of the beaver became the miracle material for hats among men in all walks–and weathers–of life. It was durable, it held its shape, and above all, it was waterproof. The demand for it was so great in Europe that beavers were almost extirpated from their prime habitats in Scandanavia and Russia, so in the early 17th century the European fur industry turned to North America.
Therefore the most welcome news about the Louisiana Territory that the Corps of Discovery brought back was the remarkable abundance of beaver throughout much of the northwest, especially in the vicinity of the Three Forks of the Missouri, and in the valleys of the Jefferson and Beaverhead Rivers. Indeed, wherever the riparian timber thinned out, the relative absence of beaver was conspicuous. On his exploratory journey to the headwaters of the Marias in July of 1806, Lewis bagged just one beaver–for its meat.
Although the golden age of the fur trade was past its peak when Fort Benton was established in 1850, furs remained the basis of its economy as a centrally located trading post for another couple of decades. The hottest commodities included not only beaver but also wolf, coyote, otter, marten, and fisher, which were all valued for their warmth and beauty. A comment in the Fort Benton Illustrated Almanac for 1878 summarizes this transitional era.
Until the past three years, the inhabitants of Benton were almost exclusively engaged in fur trading. . . . While in some respects the fur trade was of great advantage to Benton, it was also a detriment to the welfare of the town. It furnished profitable and congenial employment to a large class of adventurous men, who squandered their earnings as rapidly as they received them, and this together with the money spent by the fur dealers who annually visited the town, and by travelers awaiting the arrival or departure of steamers, made trade good and cash plenty.
It was partly the continuing decline in the market for furs that caused the writer to use the past tense, but the animal population had also diminished considerably. Indeed, early in the 1880s the Montana Legislature enacted the Territory's first game law, prohibiting the trapping of beaver for a part of each year, primarily to preserve the beaver population as a commercial resource. The first authorized season for beaver trapping was announced in 1895.
A beaver primps beside a creek
in Montana's Marias River country.
Video © Dean Hellinger
Beavers, however, are rodents, and as such are opportunistic and adaptable animals. They are survivors, in the long run subject to few predators other than humans. In places such as the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge along the Missouri River in eastern Montana, it is believed that their numbers today at least equal those in Lewis and Clark's era.
The main factor affecting beaver numbers now is the limit of tolerance of farmers and other landowners, even in suburban habitats, and trapping serves as the most practical management alternative. In the past few decades, annual beaver harvests in Montana alone have ranged from a low of 5,000 to a high of around 18,000. The total annual harvest throughout the USA ranges between 100,000 and 200,000 of the species.