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Beaver makes home in Harrison Hills pond

Mary Ann Thomas
| Friday, Jan. 8, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
A beaver has taken up residence in a pond in Harrison Hills Park in Harrison, as photographed on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016.
Courtesy of Dennis Johns
A beaver has taken up residence in a pond in Harrison Hills Park in Harrison, as photographed on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016.

The rough teeth marks on whittled down stumps around the rim of the pond at Harrison Hills reveal the park's newest resident: a beaver.

Park officials in Harrison Township plan to let the beavers be so visitors can glimpse into the lives of these secretive mammals.

Typically weighing between 30 and 65 pounds with powerful hind webbed feet and a distinctive flat, paddle-shaped tail, the beaver is the largest rodent in North America.

Semi-aquatic, they can stay underwater for up to 15 minutes.

Allegheny County Parks is hosting two other beavers in North Park in McCandless, according to Allegheny County Parks Director Andrew Baechle.

“It's a tremendous educational opportunity,” he said. “And with the bird blind at Harrison Hills, it's a great place for people to easily view the animals.”

But there hasn't always been such enthusiasm for beavers.

In the past, Harrison Hills park management removed the occasional beaver setting up shop at the pond because they build their dams and lodges at vital drainage points — potentially wreaking havoc on water levels, according to Patrick Kopnicky, a member of the volunteer group, the Friends of Harrison Hills.

But now, the animal is actually doing the park a service, he said.

“I'm so happy he is taking out those Russian olive trees,” Kopnicky said surveying the pond and pesky invasives that have crowded out its banks.

“It's going to make fishing easier,” he said.

Herbivores, beavers devour leaves, twigs, woody plants and the bark of trees and use the natural materials for their lodges and to build dams.

A volunteer at the park, Dennis Johns, 64, of Harrison has been photographing the new visitor.

“I hope it stays because you don't get to see them every day,” he said.

The park plans to monitor the animals' handiwork to make sure it doesn't damage the earthen dam at the pond and cause flooding.

Johns believes that the beaver is likely a youngster from last year's litter.

“Mama probably kicked him out and he came up the creek to here.”

The animal made a long climb — about 2,200 lineal feet — up the steep bluff from the Allegheny River, according to Kopnicky.

Tom Fazi, information and education supervisor in the Pennsylvania Game Commission's southwest region office in Bolivar, said, “It's one of the coolest mammals we have in the state.

“I don't know if it gets the attention it deserves,” he said. “It has so many different adaptations.”

According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, beavers are outfitted with built-in goggles in their eyes.

The valuable pelts of the animals pushed the westward expansion of the country. While Native Americans carefully harvested the beavers, balancing the population, the European settlers over-hunted the animals, causing local extinctions.

Today, after the animal was re-introduced to the state, the beaver is abundant throughout the commonwealth, according to Fazi, and is common is all 10 counties of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

The best times to see beavers are in the early morning and late evening, according to Fazi.

“Sit quietly with binoculars near a pond where there are beavers, and sooner or later, they'll show up,” he said. “You'll see them swimming, and you might be lucky to see them on the tree.”

Beaver trapping season runs from Dec. 26 through March 31.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at mthomas@tribweb.com.

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