Why Beavers Were Parachuted Into the Idaho Wilderness 73 Years Ago
Parachuting beavers – Jump ahead to 7:20 to see how the Idaho Fish and Game Department relocated beavers using parachutes. The department made this 14-minute film in the 1950s to show how fur-bearing animals are live-trapped and translocated.
NOTE: this article was originally published to National Geographic’s Apple News channel on September 18, 2021. It was written by Lucy Sherffiff.
The traditional way of relocating “nuisance” beavers in the 1940s wasn’t working. To increase the survival rate, one conservation officer turned to—yes—parachutes.
Sharon Clark was going about her daily business as a historian in Idaho’s Fish and Game Department, in 2014, when the telephone rang.
“I’ve found it,” the voice on the other end said conspiratorially.
“You found what?” Clark asked, recognizing the voice of Michal Davidson, a collections archivist who worked in the Idaho State Archives.
“The beaver film,” she responded.
It had been six years since Clark first learned about this now-infamous film, which shows beavers parachuting from the sky in 1948 as part of a Fish and Game experiment to relocate them into remote wilderness. She couldn’t wait to screen it.
An arduous journey
Today, black rhinos are anesthetized and hung from helicopters by their feet, skimming the savanna as they’re flown to new locations to help repopulate the species. Mountain goats are blindfolded and secured in dangling slings, choppered to new ranges to prevent destruction of fragile alpine environments from overgrazing. Fish are routinely dropped from fixed-wing aircraft to restock lakes. Still, in 1948, and even now, the idea of translocating beavers by dropping boxes of them out of a plane with parachutes was unusual.
But Idaho’s wildlife managers at the time were at a loss. People were migrating from the state’s cities to rural areas in the southwest part of the state in search of fresh air and nature. Many of those regions were already populated, however—by beavers. Soon, the new residents were complaining about the old ones, whose habit of felling trees and building dams sometimes flooded yards and damaged sprinkler systems, orchards, and culverts.
The Fish and Game Department recognized the animals’ value as important ecosystem engineers. Beavers establish and maintain wetlands, improve water quality, reduce erosion, and create habitat for game, fish, waterfowl, and plants. They also help stabilize the water supply for humans. Rather than exterminate them, the department decided to move them—all 76 of them.
The process at the time for relocating beavers overland was “arduous, prolonged, expensive, and resulted in high mortality,” wrote Elmo W. Heter, an employee of Idaho Fish and Game, in an article called “Transplanting Beaver by Airplane and Parachute,” published in the Journal of Wildlife Management in April 1950.
But it was necessary, nonetheless. And not just in Idaho, which had been translocating so-called nuisance beavers away from human-occupied areas since the 1930s. Across North America, beavers once numbered in the tens of millions, but overhunting for the fur industry reduced their numbers to just 100,000 by 1900. Once scientists came to realize the species’ importance to stream and riparian ecosystems’ health, however—and how much damage those habitats suffered in their absence—beaver reintroduction and protection became a priority.
To relocate beavers, trappers would capture them, load them into a truck, and deliver them to a conservation officer. After an overnight stay, the animals would be loaded onto another truck, then hauled to the end of the road nearest the site selected for translocation. Next, the boxed-up beavers would be strapped onto horses or mules for the last leg of their journey.
Intolerant of the sun’s heat, the beavers needed to be constantly cooled and watered; they were often so stressed they refused to eat. “Older individuals often become dangerously belligerent,” Heter noted in his article. “Rough trips on pack animals are very hard on them. Horses and mules become spooky and quarrelsome when loaded with a struggling, odorous pair of live beavers.”
Clearly, another mode of transport was needed.
Translocation can be stressful and potentially dangerous for any animal, says D.J. Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute, so to make the process safer, scientists have ended up trying some creative methods—hanging rhinos upside down takes the pressure off their organs, for example.
Heter set to work, focusing on how he could safely, quickly, and affordably transport beavers from the McCall and Payette Lake region of southwestern Idaho to the Chamberlain Basin, in central Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountain Range, now called the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area.
Eventually, he hit upon a singular idea: tying boxes of beavers to parachutes left over from World War II, then tossing them out of a small plane.
Trial and error
Heter’s challenge was to design a box that could hold two beavers secure for transportation yet open as soon as the package touched down. He tested a prototype made with woven willow, thinking the beavers could easily gnaw their way to freedom. But he abandoned that idea after realizing the animals might chew their way out in mid-air.
After experimenting with other box configurations, which he tested empty and then, repeatedly, with an older beaver named Geronimo, Heter settled on a design that included two lidless wooden boxes fitted together and hinged, like a suitcase, each ventilated with one-inch drilled holes. An intricate rope binding held the whole thing together until the box landed, the parachute collapsed, and the hinges snapped open.
Heter ran a number of trials to determine the best altitude for dropping beavers into the selected meadows. The pilot needed to avoid trees, be low enough for accuracy, and high enough for the parachute to open. The ideal height, his team learned, was between 500 and 800 feet.
“Each time [Geronimo] scrambled out of the box, someone was on hand to pick him up. Poor fellow!” Heter wrote in his dispatch, describing these test runs. “He finally became resigned, and as soon as we approached him, would crawl back into his box ready to go aloft again.”
Free-falling beavers may not be ideal, but test runs showed it’d lessen the length of time beavers spent in boxes and had a higher survival rate than traveling overland.
“Placing beavers in boxes and parachuting them into wilderness areas may have been the best method available,” Schubert says. Still, “it likely compromised the welfare of the beavers.” PETA senior director Stephanie Bell called the parachute drop cruel.
The sun shone brightly on the morning of the first great beaver drop, on August 14, 1948, as eight crates of beavers were loaded into a twin-engine Beechcraft Travel Air, alongside a pilot and a conservation officer. Over the next few days, 76 beavers parachuted into wilderness meadows.
The operation went off almost without a hitch: During one of the first drops, a lashing used to secure a box broke, and a beaver worked his head through a small opening, then clambered atop his wooden carrier. For a few moments, he was surfing the Idaho air currents.
“Had he stayed where he was, all would have gone well,” Heter wrote. “[B]ut for some inexplicable reason, when the box was within 75 feet of the ground, he jumped or fell from the box.”
He did not survive, the project’s only casualty.
As for Geronimo, Heter reported that he had a “priority reservation on the first ship into the hinterland,” accompanied by a harem of three young females.
Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game considered the beaver project a success. Each drop cost taxpayers just seven dollars per beaver, and backpackers, ranchers, and forest rangers returned most of the parachutes for reuse. Within months of their arrival, the beavers were completing dams and on track to establish colonies.
Asked if the project would ever be repeated, Roger Phillips, a department spokesperson, says it could but likely wouldn’t: “We still use aircraft extensively in the backcountry, but helicopters are [now] the preferred aircraft for this type of work and would not require parachuting.”
There are also new ways to prevent beaver dams from causing floods, PETA’s Bell says, so that the animals wouldn’t need to be relocated as often in the first place. “Today, efforts to control beaver populations include flood-preventing pipe devices called ‘beaver bafflers’ that allow water to flow and beavers to call a body of water their home,” she says. “We’ve come some way since the 1940s.”
In dogged pursuit
The story of the flying beavers would have remained unknown to the public but for the curiosity of Sharon Clark. Some five decades after Heter’s flying fur escapades, she was having lunch with a former fur trapper named Roger Williams, who had worked for Fish and Game back in the 1950s. “We were just chatting away, like we usually do,” she recently recalled, “when he casually asked me if I’d ever heard about the parachuting beaver.”
Clark laughed, assuming the retiree was joking.
“He showed me a couple of the old news articles, and I said, ‘This is crazy!’” Williams said there was even film evidence of the experiment—a short documentary entitled Fur for the Future.
“Well, where is it?” Clark asked.
“Nobody knows,” he answered.
Clark, who has worked for Fish and Game for 33 years, was determined to unearth that footage. “It was the most fascinating story I’d ever heard. I had to find it.”
She phoned the state archives and checked back roughly every six months to see if the film had turned up. Then finally, in 2014, she received the call.
The documentary had been mislabeled and misfiled. The old film was dry, and the archivist worried it would fall apart if removed from the canister. They had to wait several more months for an expert to digitize the film before they could watch it.
“We picked it up and watched it at the archives, and we were all laughing,” Clark said. “I remember thinking it was cool to send around internally to our agency, and then someone passed it on to a local news agency. And it just blew up.” Posted on YouTube in October 2015, the clip now has more than half a million views.
The 1948 beaver drop may have been a confusing—or worse—moment for the critters sailing through the sky, but it will likely be remembered as one of the more ingenious and bizarre operations a fish and game department has ever carried out.
“It was so much fun digging up the film and sharing it with the public,” Clark adds. “I sit behind a desk, you know, and I do some other cool stuff. But that tape … it’s just something else.”