Parachuting Beavers Into Idaho's Wilderness? Yes, It Really Happened

Jan 14, 2015

More than 60 years ago, Idaho Fish and Game dropped beavers out of a plane and parachuted them into the state's backcountry. This little-known piece of Idaho history stars a crafty Fish and Game officer and a plucky male beaver named Geronimo.

Idaho Fish and Game has always struggled with problem beavers; those critters who get too close or too used to city life. Trapping and re-homing them into the wild can be tough. It's expensive and it's hard to find good habitat for the beavers. That was also true back in 1948, where this one-of-a-kind story begins.

It was just after World War II and people had discovered what a beautiful place McCall and Payette Lake were. Idaho Fish and Game's Steve Liebenthal says people started building homes. “And in the process, kind of moved into where these beavers had been doing their things for decades, centuries, and beavers became a problem," Liebenthal says.

Enter Elmo Heter. Heter worked for Idaho Fish and Game in the McCall area. He had experience with beavers, and it was his job to find a solution.

Heter knew that the Chamberlain Basin was the perfect place for the beavers. The animals would be away from people, and their natural activity would be beneficial to the habitat there. "The trouble is the Chamberlain Basin is in what is now the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area and there really aren’t and weren’t any roads," Liebenthal explains.

Heter thought about packing the beavers into the wilderness, but it turns out that beavers and mules don’t mix.

Horses and mules become spooky and quarrelsome when loaded with a struggling, odorous pair of live beavers. These problems involve further handling and too frequently result in a loss of beavers. -Transplanting Beavers, a report by Elmo W. Heter in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

Heter knew there was a surplus of parachutes from World War II, and he had an idea. What if he dropped the beavers from a plane, into the backcountry? Sounds crazy, so crazy it was actually a question on a recent episode of NPR's Ask Me Another.

Beavers in wooden boxes drop from a plane into the Frank Church Wilderness to start a new life.
Credit Idaho Fish and Game

But Heter knew it would solve the problem in McCall, help the habitat at Chamberlain, make good use of the parachutes, and save money. The estimated cost for dropping four beavers from a plane was around $30 in 1948, that's about $294 in today's dollars.

This diagram shows the special box Heter used to drop the beavers into the backcountry.
Credit Journal of Wildlife Management

Now that he had a plan, Heter had to figure out how to drop the beavers safely. First idea: a woven willow box. Once it hit the ground with the beaver inside, the animal could chew its way to freedom. But Liebenthal said that didn’t work.

“The beavers went to work immediately upon being put into one of these boxes and it was feared they might chew their way out while dropping from the sky or might even chew their way out while they were in the airplane which would cause a problem for the pilot.”

So Heter came up with a specially-designed wooden box that would open upon impact. He tested it first with some dummy weights. Then he found an older male beaver who became his test pilot. Heter named him Geronimo. “And Geronimo went through a series of tests to see how this plan would work," says Liebenthal.

Heter dropped Geronimo on a landing field, over and over and over again. Each time, Geronimo popped out of the box, was caught by handlers, and put back inside for another ride.

Poor fellow! He finally became resigned, and as soon as we approached him, would crawl back into his box ready to go aloft again -Transplanting Beavers, a report by Elmo W. Heter in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

Once Heter was satisfied, it was time to put his plan into action. And Geronimo’s reward for all his hard work was to be the first male beaver on a first class seat on a plane to the Chamberlain Basin. “He was sent to his own little piece of paradise, with three lovely young beavers," says Liebenthal. Three lovely female beavers.

Once they hit the ground, it took Geronimo a little while to figure out his parachuting days were over, but he soon created a colony with his lady friends.

More beavers followed Geronimo, 76 in all were dropped into the basin. All but one survived the drop and went to work. “And created some amazing habitat that is part of what is now the largest protected roadless forest in the lower 48 states," says Liebenthal.

Liebenthal says he’s not sure why the project didn’t continue past 1948. “But my assumption is that they accomplished what they wanted to accomplish in the area and there was no need to continue.”

And how did Heter feel about his project?

The savings in man hours, and in the mortality of animals, is quite evident. Sex ratios are maintained. The beavers are healthier, and in better condition to establish a colony.-Transplanting Beavers, a report by Elmo W. Heter in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

Now homeowners are encouraged to get along with beavers, instead of transplanting them. Liebenthal says it’s “highly unlikely” something like the great beaver drop of 1948 would happen today. But he says the offspring of those pioneering beavers are likely still living and helping the habitat in the Frank Church Wilderness.

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

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