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Beavers threaten eagles’ habitat

Ward, they’re worried about the beavers.

Large yellow signs on and around the Niagara River’s Strawberry Island forbid trespassing near a bald eagle nest on the island. The rule, set forth by the state, protects America’s national bird from boaters, kayakers or curious sightseers.

The beavers couldn’t have cared less about the law.

“Beavers can’t read,” said Mark Kandel, a DEC wildlife biologist, of the agency’s “constant battle” to protect the eagles’ habitat and nesting area. “We wanted to get out there on the island as soon as possible, but it had to be delayed until the chick was fledged.”

The furry, big-toothed varmints swam to Strawberry Island, lumbered through the restricted area and badly damaged or felled about 20 trees on the island.

State DEC officials feared that, without intervention, the beavers might next turn to the tall, thick tree on the island’s southern end where the eagles finally nested this spring after nearly three years of trying.

Beavers will now need their teeth – and a pair of wire cutters – to get to the eagles’ nest.

Nearly a dozen volunteers from the Niagara Musky Association, armed with a special- use permit, are teaming up to help the DEC “fence off” a large amount of the trees on the island to protect them from beaver damage. The “eagle tree” was among the first on the list when the group began work this week.

“The bald eagle – it’s the national bird,” said Bernie Elliott of Depew. “You got to pitch in.”

Elliott was one of several ferried out to the island aboard a small motor boat belonging to member Joseph “JoJo” Wilczewski. Elliott and others waded waist-deep in the river, beaching at its southern shore near the eagles’ nest.

Then, the work began.

While Elliott cut segments of the green vinyl-covered wire fencing – obtained at a reduced price from a local Home Depot store – other association members like Cheektowaga residents Carl Schenk and Frank Stachowiak began wrapping and affixing the roughly yard-high fencing around the base of the trees.

“Beaver’s gonna be maaaad,” joked Schenk after the group finished wrapping one of the trees.

Stachowiak, who brought his teenage grandson, David Filion, for the adventure, said the Musky Association noticed significant damage to trees on Strawberry Island when the group did its annual cleanup there earlier this year.

“They’re not making dams, they just like chopping trees down,” Stachowiak said of the beavers. “It’s like candy to them, I guess.”

Strawberry Island, along with its companion Motor Island, is owned by the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. They are technically island extensions of Beaver Island State Park on Grand Island.

Concerns were raised about the potential devastation to the trees on Strawberry Island, which over the last decade or so experienced significant erosion. When the eagles established a viable nest this year, the impetus to take action to save the trees on the island was heightened.

“Last year, we noticed it for the first time. This year, there was a lot of damage again,” said Wilczewski. “To save the trees is to the save the island.”

The eagles, which are believed to still be in the Niagara River corridor, are not occupying the nest at present. That allowed the tree-fencing efforts to begin. Because the nest was productive this year, Kandel said, the birds are expected to return for the next nesting season.

Meanwhile, the Musky Association also anticipates helping the DEC with similar tree-wrapping on nearby Motor Island later this year. A quick circle around Motor Island from the river reveals numerous nests of the great blue heron. Egret nests are also present there.

Saving the trees, by extension, means protecting the avian life that lives in them, said Kandel.

Kandel calls the beavers “an abundant nuisance” that the DEC tries “to be tolerant of.” The DEC has, nevertheless, allowed beaver trapping as a means of minimizing damage to other island habitat.

“It’s never a dull moment with nature,” said Kandel.