There went the neighborhood.
A colony of beaver, which numbered at least eight a year ago, is gone from Meadowbrook Park in south Urbana. So is their dam. And so, temporarily, is the damage — easily visible to the human visitors along the park's trails — that they did to trees and other vegetation along McCullough Creek that bisects the park.
But the beaver likely will return, according to staffers with the Urbana Park District.
"What we've noticed in the past is that the beaver presence has been cyclical and they have come and gone over the years," said Derek Liebert, a project manger with the park district. "We think it's likely related to food source."
"History shows, at least for the last 20 or 30 years, that they come and then they're gone for a while and things grow back and then they're back again," said Judy Miller, the park district's environmental program manager. "My general thinking is that they eat themselves out of house and home and then they move away, probably downstream someplace, and then they come back.
"We would expect them to be back."
Informal surveys by the park district show that there were beaver in Meadowbrook from 1995 to 2002, that they disappeared for a time and then reappeared in 2009.
Last year at least seven beaver were found dead in the park, possibly from an outbreak of Tularemia, also known as rabbit fever, that was reported in animals throughout Champaign-Urbana. The remains of three of the beaver were tested at the University of Illinois veterinary clinic, but results were inconclusive, according to the park district.
But one beaver has been seen off and on at the park. It's not known whether it is a visitor from farther downstream, or a survivor of last year's die-off.
"A patron saw it a couple of weeks ago during the flooding in the southern part of the park," said Miller. "The person said they thought they saw some new cuttings (off plants) too but we haven't seen any dam building yet."
It's all part of nature, in large and small cycles, on display in the 130-acre park.
Last year, there was an enormous dam on McCullough Creek, a tangle of large limbs and branches and shoots that created a good-sized pond. The dam is already gone, washed away by flooding and natural decomposition, and with no beaver to maintain it.
That's bad news for the frogs and turtles and perhaps even the deer and other wildlife in the park.
"We're happy to have the beaver there. We feel like they contribute significantly to the park, in terms of the ecology," Liebert said. "There's a number of birds that became associated with that stream corridor that wouldn't be there otherwise. And there are frogs and turtles because of that beaver habitat. Even plants. We had an inventory done of the plants at Meadowbrook Park the summer before last, and there was abundant beaver activity at that time and one of the more diverse areas was the stream corridor where we had beaver ponds.
"The term you often hear in ecology is that there are keystone species that dramatically alter the environment, and in our opinion benefit the habitat. There almost certainly will be a loss of diversity with the loss of the beaver."
Not only do beaver help create an environment for other species, but their dams help regulate the level of water, slowing its movement across the landscape, preventing erosion and naturally improving its quality as it flows downstream.
On the other hand, the loss of the beaver means a chance for the sandbar willows, cottonwoods and other tender plants along the creek — the dinner of choice for beaver — to re-establish themselves.
"They're like humans. They create a habitat. They create something different that can be a habitat for other animals," Miller said of the beaver. "So once they're gone, it's an interesting prospect to see what happens. When they left in the '90s and came back six or seven years later, things had really grown up. There were a lot more willows along the bank.
"We have a management plan for them and we're always excited when they're there because they change the habitat and they bring in other species, desirable species."
The management plan calls for caging valuable trees in the park so they are protected from beaver, but also encouraging the animals' settlement.
Miller, whose backyard is Meadowbrook Park, looks forward to the return of the beaver if for no other reason than to perhaps finally see one of the mostly nocturnal creatures.
"In all of my years here I've only heard them once. I've never actually seen them," she said. "One night around dusk I heard one slap the water, which is a warning sign to everyone else that there is an intruder."
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.