Beavers reclaiming land on abandoned island in Detroit River

A beaver trudges through the snow to fortify his home during a cold January night.

Wandering into a beaver habitat can be like entering a disaster zone.

Shoreline bushes chewed back. Nearby trees felled and demolished. Hundreds of branches piled near a mound damming up a river and flooding the area. To some people the scene looks like environmental havoc. 

To the beaver, it's home.

Using trail cameras, FOX 2 photojournalist Coulter Stuart caught one of these rodents building his own den. It was spotted at an inlet on Stony Island in the Detroit River. In one scene, the beaver can be seen packing mud into the side of a mound - fortifications for his hut.

In another clip the beaver is seen walking on his hind legs, carrying sticks from one end ot the other. 

Capturing this ingenuity on display can be tough since the rodents are nocturnal and only build at night. During the day, the only evidence are their footprints in the dirt and the discarded wood that surrounds their homes.

There's evidence of another kind of activity on Stony Island, too. Scrap metal and sunken barges now shape the shoreline, while beer cans and shotgun shells litter the land. One dilapidated building has a message spray-painted on its side telling visitors the island smells like urine. 

A beaver den partially built over a sunken barge in one of the Stony Island inlets.

Once the home base for a massive project that transformed the Detroit River and Great Lakes shipping traffic, the 100-acre plot of land is slowly being reclaimed by wildlife.

"Wildlife is resilient. If you give it half a chance, you'd be surprised," said Bob Burns who does conservation work with the Friends of the Detroit River group. 

It may be a surprise that beavers have returned at all. They were harvested to near-extinction when fur trappers arrived from Europe during the colonial era. The added pressures of pollution and habitat loss from Southeast Michigan's rapid growth in the early 20th century would have made any return to the area extremely difficult.

Burns is a longtime resident of Southeast Michigan. From the burning of the Rouge River in 1969 to the emergence of PFAS in the 2000s, he's witnessed the impacts of human contamination on the environment. 

MORE: Ancient life, rare plants found in Michigan's sinkholes

But in the past 10 years, he's also seen mother nature's response when it's offered an opportunity to recover. The reemergence of beavers is a sign of that progress.

"I'm not saying things are perfect, far from it," he said. "But from the days of dumping oil and grease and having fires on the river to now with improvements in water quality - it's really starting to pay off over the past decade." 

Busy beavers on the Detroit River

To get any real proof of the beaver building their home requires good timing and a lot of patience. Trail cameras solved both problems and a weeks-worth of footage did not disappoint.

Reclaiming the cameras required a 45-minute boat ride - it's the only mode of transportation to Stony Island. FOX 2 Detroit made the trek from Lake Erie Metropark, taking off from the public boat launch.

The route went around Horse Island in Gibraltar, under the East River Road Bridge on Grosse Ile before turning north. On one side are bucolic homes fit for lake life. On the other side is the Canadian shore.

Aerial footage of the beaver home found on Stony Island. 

When the boat got to Stony Island, it wasn't a beaver but a resident mink that was first to greet - though it only stuck around long enough to be seen darting away.

At first glance, the only evidence of wildlife in the area were the footprints in the snow that traveled over a mound of dirt and twigs. But a closer look reveals sure signs of a beaver. Hundreds of sticks surround the mound - most of them underwater. There was also a beaver-sized hole for rodents to access the interior of the mound.

Except for the lapping of water on shore, the scene was all still.

A review of footage showed something else: a very busy beaver hard at work. The camera caught it carrying mud and kneading it into the top of the mound. It also does quite a bit of pacing. 

At several points, the beaver is seen carrying sticks in its hands, walking on its hind legs over the mound. Occasionally the same mink or a raccoon also make an appearance. 

MORE: Mysterious sand slabs appearing on Lake Michigan beach

The beaver's trips up and over his home show it was moving a lot of sticks, likely dropping it in the water that surrounds the mound - which is common practice among beavers. The cache of wood will keep it well-stocked for the future.

Beaver captured on a trail camera footage

During a winter storm, the beaver can be seen shifting things around, sometimes slipping in the snow. Michiganders everywhere would likely sympathize with the rodent.

Old and new life on Stony Island

There's evidence of beavers elsewhere on the island as well. Trees on the brink of collapse show the marks of beaver teeth hard at work.

The sight would be shocking just 10 years ago - a testament to the progress the local environment has made since efforts began to clean it up.

In many ways, the history of Stony Island looks a lot like the history of Southeast Michigan. 

It was originally home to the Potawatomi Indian Tribe for hunting and fishing. After being deeded to a family that lived on Grosse Ile, it eventually was home to a railroad built on it as part of a crossing between the U.S. and Canada. 

When the industrial revolution came for Southeast Michigan, Stony Island became key to that development when focus turned toward the waterways around Detroit.

In 1907, a massive project to widen and deepen the river where it leads into Lake Erie started. To build what would eventually be the Livingstone Channel, Dunbar & Sullivan Dredging Co. used Stony Island as the base of operations to dig out the channel.

According to the U.S. Army Corps District Detroit the channel was deepened from 13 feet to 22 feet, and widened from 300 feet to a range of 450 to 800 feet. Additional projects were undertaken in the 1920s and 1930s. 

A ship passes through the Livingstone Channel in the Detroit River. 

When dredging was completed, those that lived on the island moved away and the materials used to expand the channel were abandoned. Left to its own devices, vegetation has reclaimed much of the island. 

Invasive phragmites plants tower over much of the old infrastructure, which includes rusty pipes, half-sunken barges, and cement-covered shores where boats used to dock at. Thick steel wiring sits coiled around slabs and surrounded by plants. Other signs of the previous work include massive dock cleats for tying down incoming boats.

Not much disturbs the isolation that's returned to the island - the perfect setting for returning wildlife.

A small rodent with big influence

Despite their size, beavers can have a big influence on the local environment.

In building their dens, they will topple trees and dam rivers, flooding the nearby area. Beavers use the newly-created reservoir for refuge and to store wood and other building materials. The effects of this stretch well beyond the dam, altering the water cycle, purifying the river, and even changing its temperature.

"Beavers are messy and chaotic and leave dead and dying trees everywhere," said Author Ben Goldfarb, who has written about the rodents. "This was more the historic rule than exception."

This outsized influence defined the landscape in much of the U.S. and especially in Southeast Michigan, which was mostly wetlands and swamp before it was urbanized. It's also caused problems for humans living in the habitats that beavers once dominated. 

Toppled trees on a shoal near Stony Island. 

Their reemergence in Southeast Michigan has prompted tough questions for wildlife managers and conservationists. Restoring the Great Lakes will help returning wildlife thrive, but it will also increase the interactions with humans. 

"The main problem with beaver populations in Southeast Michigan, by nature, is they plug up waterways that cause a lot of problems with how residential we are in this part of the state," said Zach Cooley, the DNR biologist for Lenawee, Monroe, and Wayne counties. "We get involved mostly when nuisance complaints start coming in where they've backed up a waterway."

There's no data that estimates beaver numbers in the area. The state instead relies on trapping data.

In Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, and Wayne counties, beaver numbers have "generally increased" from 2006 to 2020, the DNR's wildlife specialist wrote in an email.

From 2006-2010, harvest data was in the range of 50-100 beavers per year. From 2011-2013, those numbers climbed to 150-200 beavers a year. After dropping in 2014-2017, they rebounded to 325 by 2020.

"This trend likely represents an increasing trend in abundance and distribution of beavers in this area in recent years, as well as many areas of the state, that may be due in part to low fur prices and resulting decreased trapping pressure," wrote wildlife specialist Cody Norton. 

A cache of sticks collected by a beaver that surrounds the den on Stony Island. 

Their population growth has also led to an increase in nuisance complaints related to beavers - though not to the point they're management requires a larger response.

"It's still not to the point that it's a growing problem, but it's a tight rope to walk," Cooley said. "People like having beavers around. It's a good indication you have good habitat. But there does come a point where they start backing things up. That's in their nature."

RELATED: Jellyfish discovered in Island Lake Recreation Area pond near Brighton

Beavers are now regular sight at the Bayview Yacht Club. They've also found suitable habitat at the Conner Creek Power Plant where the Rouge River opens into the Detroit River. The DNR keeps watch of them on Belle Isle while a few have prompted animal trapping calls on Grosse Ile. 

Recently, they surprised residents in Trenton at Ellias Cove

The environment's conservation will likely spur more interactions between humans and beavers as their numbers continue to grow. But Cooley says the beavers taking up residence on the islands that border Grosse Ile may not be such a bad thing.

"Being in the Detroit River, there's not as many opportunities to cause problems. So that's a good place for them to live," he said. "If you build it, they will come."