Search

The Beavers of Accokeek Creek

We Like Nature OK, We Just Don’t Like It to Be Too Messy.

By Steve Watkins

The Humans of Brooke Road aren’t all beaver killers. Some are actually quite nice. One family rescues mini pigs. Another runs a conservation research center. Many may not even know they had a hand in the torture-deaths of nearly three dozen beavers two years ago—parents, yearlings, and kits—and the destruction in all or in part of 15 beaver dams tucked into the reeds and hyacinths and groves of dead ash trees in the forested wetlands of Accokeek Creek.

The creek, which runs next to a three-mile section of the frequently-flooded Brooke Road in southern Stafford County, is a small tributary to the Potomac River in Virginia, named for the Accokeek people who lived there since prehistoric times but don’t anymore because the settlers who came in from Europe pretty much wiped out anything and everything indigenous, including the people and also including the beavers. 

The 34 beavers killed—impaled and left to bleed out or drown in metal body-gripping traps—may have been the descendants of castor Canadensis reintroduced to the area several decades ago. Trappers and fur-wearers had done all they could in the centuries prior to hunt all the beavers in North America out of existence and came awfully close to succeeding. In the process, they turned what had been a continent-wide wetland, flush with all manner flora and fauna—thanks to the work of beavers, a keystone species—into what is now in many respects a continent-wide parking lot.

In 1600, there were an estimated 400 million beavers in North America. By 1900, there were fewer than 100,000. 

Thirty-four is the official number of beavers killed two years ago on Accokeek Creek. That’s according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose trappers are the go-to folks for getting rid of “nuisance” creatures on public land, in this case the 3,000-acre state-owned Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve, which includes, and is partly bordered by, Accokeek Creek. Humans on the Facebook chat site “Friends of Brooke Road” put the number much higher, at 80, though it’s not clear where they got their information. Everybody on the Facebook page seems to be an expert on the “beaver problem,” with most concluding that beavers, with all their dam work, are the primary cause of the constant flooding on Brooke Road. And what’s worse, they say, is that the beavers don’t even seem to care.

“We literally saw a 50 lb beaver 10 feet from the S curve milling around just before sunset this evening!!” wrote one Human of Brooke Road in a March 2021 Facebook post. “Hasn’t anyone noticed their dam in plain view from the S curve? Soon enough they will be waving to us laughing as we drive by.”

To which another Human added, “Oh and they will also be holding their sign out to us made from a tree they cut down with the letters scratched on it ‘FU.’”

“We need beavers in the stew pots and new fur coats,” wrote yet another Human in that same exchange. “Would somebody please start using ‘I promise a beaver in every stew pot.’ As their campaign slogan?” 

A local politician, Paul Milde, who at the time was running for the Stafford County Board of Supervisors, took him up on it. The photo illustration that accompanies this article is a meme Milde posted on the “Friends of Brooke Road” Facebook page during his campaign, along with a call for government action to clear out the beavers. 

“The reason we are seeing water over the road so often over the last three years is completely because the beavers have felled so many trees across the Accokeek that it backs up and pours over the road,” he Facebooked–inaccurately. “In fact the creek has become a swamp. There is no tidal connection. There [sic] road has not sunk several inches. When the Crows Nest became a Nature Preserve, all hunting and trapping stopped and the beaver population exploded.”

Milde actually had a hand in saving Crow’s Nest from development fifteen years ago. But perhaps fearful during the campaign for supervisor that he might be mistaken for an actual environmentalist, Milde put on waders and ventured into the Accokeek wetlands with a videographer buddy, Billy Kelley, hoping to win himself a few anti-beaver votes. Kelley, owner of a local tree care and stump grinding service, filmed the valiant Milde perched on top of several offending dams, taking a heroic stand against the marauders. They posted it on Milde’s web site.

After one particularly wet winter a few years back, when Brooke Road was repeatedly closed due to flooding—sometimes for days at a time—a series of public meetings was held by county officials and engineers at the Virginia Department of Transportation, with Chief VDOT engineer Kyle Bates catching the brunt of the complaints. Fingers were pointed. Voices were raised. Demands were made. Costly hydrology and engineering and mitigation studies were ordered. More costly hydrology, engineering, and mitigation studies were ordered. Rain kept falling. The creek kept flowing. Beavers kept building their dams.

Meanwhile, neighbors at the end of a cul-de-sac in one subdivision off Brooke Road constructed a walking path through the woods connecting with the cul-de-sac in another subdivision. If people weren’t able to drive through when the road flooded, at least they would be able to walk around it.

***

The word “Accokeek” means “At the edge of the hill,” maybe because the Accokeek people lived on the coastal plains east of the Appalachian Mountains. Accokeek Creek sits at the edge of a hill, too—at the bottom of a ridge to the north where the county let developers put in half a dozen ill-advised subdivisions 20 years ago without proper storm water mitigation. Before that, Brooke Road existed so the millionaires at Marlborough Point, a peninsula further east that juts out into the Potomac, could drive to their riverfront mansions. 

The Humans of Brooke Road have access streets into their subdivisions that channel runoff straight from their vast monoculture lawns down the hill, where it pours across Brooke Road and into Accokeek Creek. In times of heavy rain, no surprise, the road floods—particularly at the low-lying section locals call the S-Curve, which they pronounce as if it were a curse word. Two years ago, a Mercedes Benz tried to drive through and got swamped there. The owner managed to get his door open and swim to safety, but the Mercedes caught fire and burned to a shell, at least the half of it above the water line. An elderly woman who tried to drive through in a Toyota nearly came to an even worse end as another flood threatened to sweep her downstream until a couple of Good Samaritans came to the rescue.

VDOT keeps a traffic camera aimed at the S-Curve with a constant video feed so the Humans of Brooke Road can check out the road conditions in real time whenever it rains. Those who live east of the flood-prone area, if the water’s too deep for them to get through, will know to park a second car somewhere west of the S-Curve on higher ground in advance of the rain and then walk the path through the woods to get to it. 

Which is how absurd the situation has become. There’s the promise of a multi-million-dollar project to raise the level of Brooke Road a whopping five feet—higher than a burning Mercedes—but that’s still several years away. Residents who refused to grant right of way (or who demanded exorbitant amounts to sell it) managed to block construction of a much less expensive bypass VDOT offered to put in where the walking path through the woods connects the two subdivisions above the S-Curve.  

Meanwhile, incredibly, developers are still logging and clear-cutting and building more homes on Brooke Road and Marlborough Point, all on the stranded side of the flooding. Log trucks have to jack-knife themselves to get around the sharp turns at the S-Curve, and if there’s been any rain at all, they look more like cargo ships than flat-beds plowing their way through the standing water. 

One more good hurricane barreling across the peninsula and who knows what will happen?

***

Crow’s Nest is a strange sort of nature preserve, as I suppose they all are—a kind of outdoor museum where dozens of species of plants and animals, both common and rare, find sanctuary, but also where periodically throughout the year hunters, a particularly virulent invasive species, are allowed to doll themselves up in camouflage and orange vests, load shotguns with non-lead slugs, and kill white-tailed deer and certain unfortunate species of waterfowl. The Malthusian case for shooting the deer is an old one: that otherwise the deer, with no natural predators left in the area, will destroy too much foliage and will suffer and starve. So we’re actually doing them a favor by killing them. Or, to borrow a line from the Vietnam War, we had to destroy the village in order to save it. 

White-tailed deer, as Ranjit Singh pointed out in these pages back in November, had to be reintroduced to Virginia some decades ago, along with the beavers, after they’d been hunted almost to extinction. Though I don’t suppose they actually had to be reintroduced. We just wanted them here. So we could enjoy having them around—and, at some point, kill them some more. 

The argument for trapping beavers—for killing them, because beaver relocation is against state law—is in part the same as why those deer hunters, chosen by lottery, are allowed to invade Crow’s Nest with their portable tree stands. We brought the beavers back to Virginia to re-create some of the wetlands we’d destroyed and that we discovered we actually needed if we were going to have any sort of biodiversity in Virginia, and as a counter to rampant erosion, and as natural fire breaks. Only now we resent the beavers for creating the wetlands we brought them back to re-create, because sometimes they do it in places we don’t like. Like next to Brooke Road. It’s all very complicated, this managing nature. You might even call it hubris. We like nature OK; we just don’t like it to be too messy.

***

Despite all the meetings and studies and complaints, nothing much was done about the Brooke Road flooding in 2019 and 2020 besides the occasional operating of a pump, the clearing of a culvert, the back-hoeing of a ditch. The one constant was the chorus of voices clamoring for “eradication” of the Accokeek beavers. This went on until finally, perhaps inevitably—with continuing pressure on Stafford County officials from the Humans of Brooke Road and the voluble likes of Milde—the supervisor of Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve, Mike Lott, made the politically expedient decision to allow in the USDA trappers. He wanted to be a good neighbor, after all, amenable to the concerns of the Brooke Roaders, plus there were a couple of tracts of land bordering Crow’s Nest that he hoped would be purchased with help from the county to expand the preserve. 

The bill from the USDA came to $11,000—$325 for each dead beaver.

In the “Friends of Brooke Road” Facebook chat, one of the Humans said killing the beavers in Accokeek Creek was God’s Will, and assured his fellow Humans that beavers died “instantly” in body traps, though that’s rarely the case. Here’s a video link if you want to see how the traps work, though I don’t recommend watching it. 

A single Human, out of the dozens who posted, stated unequivocally that blaming the beavers for the flooding—and killing them as a solution—was wrong. “I’m so done with this conversation,” she wrote. “For months now. Rather than people taking ownership in their part of the problem. All you want to do is kill wildlife. You can live with your own conscience on that one. I can’t do or stop any of it. But a beaver massacre is not going to fix the problem.”

The USDA didn’t want to say what they did with the bodies and pelts of the slain beavers, some of which would have suffered for hours, or even days, before they died, unless they drowned, which would have been its own horrible death for an animal that can hold its breath for up to fifteen minutes. 

VDOT officials said taking out the beaver dams in early 2021 appeared to lower the water level in Accokeek Creek—a little, and for a little while. Or at least they thought it did. No hydrologists were brought in to do an actual assessment. The flooding, in any event, continued.

In spring 2022, after 19 official road closures in four years, a desperate VDOT installed a permanent pump next to the warning sign at the S-Curve, plus a drywell for temporarily holding some of the excess water. They also installed a new pipe under the road at the S-Curve and added several inches of extra tarmac on top of it, raising the level just enough so there wasn’t any flooding for the first several months—even, VDOT proudly noted, when the remnants of Hurricane Ian swept through the area back in October. 

Nobody expects the new fix to be permanent, of course. The rains of December already shut down the road for a few brief periods right after Christmas. They just hope it will hold for a while. And it hasn’t stopped the Humans of Brooke Road—the Billy Kellys, the Paul Mildes, the God’s Wills—from continuing to clamor for more beaver killing and more dam removal. 

But Crow’s Nest supervisor Mike Lott doesn’t see that happening.

 “Trapping the beavers alone wasn’t going to solve the flooding,” he said recently. “Brooke Road was built in a flood plain to begin with, and added to that is all the run-off from the housing developments north of Brooke Road and the Creek. Then there’s the die-off of the ash trees from the Emerald Ash Borers, which has been happening nationwide. There are literally hundreds of trees down out there.”

Trees that may be blocking the flow of the creek in some places, but few if any of them felled by the beavers.  

In the not-too-distant future, Accokeek Creek won’t be a forested wetland anymore, Lott added. It’s already taking on the characteristics of an emergent marsh, with more herbaceous plants and fewer to no trees. Sea-level rise will also continue to be a factor, and tidal marshes downstream will move further and further upstream. “The salinity is still low enough here at Crow’s Nest for it to remain a freshwater tidal system,” Lott said, “but that could change in the decades ahead.”

Which would likely spell the end to the beavers of Accokeek Creek, who have a limited capacity for tolerating saltwater and would leave to find fresh streams further inland.

The slaughter of the 34 beavers two years ago, and destruction of their dams, may or may not have affected the water level in Accokeek Creek, in however temporary a manner, but what’s indisputable is that it did nothing to help Paul Milde’s political career. Despite amassing and spending nearly $1.15 million in his recent run for supervisor, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, and despite having already served a couple of terms on the Stafford County Board of Supervisors, and despite flogging beaver eradication as a central plank in his campaign platform, Milde lost to a part-time minister, artist, inspirational speaker, former exotic dancer, mother of seven, and first-time politician named Monica Gary, who spent less than $15,000 and pledged to look for other solutions to the Brooke Road flooding. She’s still looking.

Meanwhile, according to everybody—Mike Lott, VDOT, the USDA, Accokeek Creek kayakers—within just a few days of the killings back in the winter months of 2021, more beaver families moved in to the wetlands and immediately got to work rebuilding the dams.

The Humans of Brooke Road were right about one thing: The beavers of Accokeek Creek don’t give a shit about them or about the flooding. They don’t give a shit about all the hand-wringing and complaining in those ill-conceived housing developments north of Crow’s Nest, or about the self-destructive nature of humankind. They don’t give a shit about the lack of appreciation Humans have for the work beavers do with their dams, which—in addition to creating wetlands that attract and sustain hundreds of species, many of them rare and endangered—also filter out pollutants from the acres of manicured lawns that the Humans of Brooke Road and others inflict on the environment and that threaten the health of the Chesapeake Bay and the oceans beyond.  

Mike Lott says there are still hundreds of beavers in Crow’s Nest Natural Area Preserve. Of course some of them migrated to Accokeek Creek after the massacre. Beavers hear the sound of moving water, they get right to work damming it up. It’s not in their nature to let a good creek go to waste.

*** 

Steve Watkins, editor and co-founder of Pie & Chai, is the author of 12 books, a retired professor emeritus of American literature, a recovering yoga teacher, and the father of four remarkable daughters. He is also a tree steward with the urban reforestation organization Tree Fredericksburg and founder of Rappahannock Area Beaver Believers, a wildlife advocacy group, which you’re welcome to join on Facebook. His author website is stevewatkinsbooks.com.

MORE ON BEAVERS

  1. Check out Ben Goldfarb’s book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, and Leila Philip’s Beaver Land: How One Weird Rodent Made America. They’ll turn you into a Beaver Believer, member of a loose-knit but deeply passionate coalition throughout North America—throughout the world—advocating for beavers in a variety of ways. 
  2. Follow my friend Alison Zak and her Human-Beaver Coexistence Fund, which works tirelessly to educate the public about the benefits of coexisting with beavers. 
  3. Read the article “Can beavers help build a better Chesapeake Bay?” from the Bay Journal, and/or watch the film Water’s Way: Thinking Like a Watershed
  4. Support the Beaver Institute, whose mission, as they say, is “To provide technical and financial assistance to public and private landowners experiencing beaver conflicts, support scientific research, train mitigation professionals, and increase public appreciation of the beaver’s critical role in creating healthy wetland ecosystems.” 
  5. And, finally, join our local Rappahannock Area Beaver Believers on Facebook.