Eager For Beaverû
Is it time to help Oregons state animal dam the wild?
by Shannon Finnell
When June Cleaver said she was øworried about the Beaver," she was talking about her sons disconcerting tendency to rumple towels or his adolescent disdain for school. Most likely Mrs. Cleaver of Leave It To Beaver wasnt expressing concern about a valuable rodent that was routinely being killed when it could have been used to subvert environmental disaster. But she could have been.
They flood streams, overwhelm irrigation ditches and plug culverts until roads wash away. They trim their front teeth (which never stop growing) on landowners favorite trees in a sort of steampunk orthodontia. Oregon defames them as nuisances and predators, allowing them to be destroyed with impunity. There is no mandate that humans make an effort to live with beaver.
And yet the beaver is Oregons state animal, and restoring their natural habitat promises to dampen the effects of climate change while also providing habitat for species like the Coho salmon. Government agencies and conservation groups are coming to realize that they can use beaver to save millions of dollars while accomplishing complex and detailed preservation work. Now, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) is rolling out official beaver relocation guidelines to improve the success of beaver transplants.
Despite the appearance of a black and white choice between convenience and conservation, Pendleton hydrologist Suzanne Fouty says that focusing on resolutions rather than conflicts can help Oregonians and beaver live together in harmony, with both sides reaping the rewards of beavers restorative habits. øThere are very few problems that beaver create that cannot be creatively solved," Fouty says. øTheres this huge benefit, we acknowledge the problems, and now we need to say *OK, I want them, theres got to be a way to find a solution."
Beaver on the move
Oregons official wildlife policy classifies beaver as nuisances and predators (they are fierce vegetarians that prey on bark, twigs and leaves). Citizens who dislike sharing their land with beaver arent officially discouraged from killing them.
ODFW and the Forest Service have pointed out publicly that beaver perform desirable watershed restoration work by engineering the landscape to function in its natural state, the way it did before interference by humans drastically altered it.
In May the ODFW announced official guidelines for relocating nuisance beaver to forest areas where they can live happy and productive lives instead of being killed. Now no beaver may be captured and relocated without an application approved by the ODFW. District biologists must evaluate and approve all release sites, and relocations must take place between August and October.û
Relocations in Oregon are still about 25 years behind Colorado, where one of the most successful live beaver trappers works as a hairdresser, not a mountain man. Sherri Tippie heard in 1985 about a golf course that planned on killing its resident beaver, and the rest is history. She volunteered to give the beaver a fighting chance by moving them to the forest. In 25 years, she says, only two adult beaver have died during her relocations. Her secret to success? Loving beaver.
øWhat we need are more hairdressers involved in wildlife," Tippie jokes. øThats almost true." She worries that biologists assigned to live-trap beaver will have their compassion educated out of them, and describes in detail how she checks her traps daily, making certain the beaver dont drown in submerged traps or go hungry.
To Tippie, restoring the environment with beaver is a pleasant benefit, but in her role of live-trapper its a secondary concern to the welfare of the animals. øYou take all of the needs of the animal into consideration with the utmost respect, care and compassion," she says. øIf theyre doing something for us, its up to us to minimize stress and anxiety." Beaver love beaver, too. They mate for life, and become distressed when separated from their partner. Tippie says its important that theyre always moved in pairs.
Charlie Corrarino, fish conservation and recovery manager with ODFW, says the detailed list of requirements in Oregons new guidelines is meant to protect the beaver. øWhat we were trying to do was put out a set of conditions that would provide the highest likelihood of survival for relocated beavers," Corrarino explains.
Armed with the ODFWs øHealthy Beaver Checklist," which recommends euthanizing beaver suffering hair loss or excessive drooling, trappers catch and move healthy nuisance beaver to an approved site. After relocation, beaver will be monitored by radio transmitters implanted in their tails (not joking) for at least a month while they embark on dam-building projects long absent from the Oregon landscape.
A violent beaver history
Europeans had already changed the ecology of the watersheds by the time pioneers began arriving in the Oregon Territory hundreds of years ago. It all started with beaver. Trappers intent on supplying the thick, bushy beaver pelts for hats popular in Europe significantly decreased the population within a short period of time, according to Fouty.û
øWhen the Hudson Bay Company was finally convinced the Oregon territory was going to become part of the United States, they had a policy to go into the entire state and exterminate the beaver and kill em all," Stanley Petrowski, chair of the Douglas County Watershed Council, says.
Killing off so many beaver created a domino effect that rapidly (on a geographical scale) changed the landscape. Fouty says that when dams began to fail due to natural causes, no beaver were there to engineer their repair. Broken dams meant that more water headed downstream more quickly, resulting in greater force and more damage at the next dam downstream.
Dam loss meant that large ponds drained, and by the time early land surveyors arrived Oregon had become ømore of a channel-dominated system," Fouty says. Without ponds regulating the flow of water, channels began to determine the characteristics of the watershed systems. Water moved faster and temperatures rose.
Settlers changed the rivers from their natural conformation, too, by straightening channels and through the effects of mining and heavy grazing. As a result of these changes, and with fewer beaver dams to slow the water, drainage sped up and the water table (the level at which the ground is saturated with water) dropped. The shape of the waterways also changed as a result of dam loss, and the faster flowing water caused more erosion and cut deeper channels.û
Oregons riparian (creek and riverside) drainage has been unsustainable since its natural system of beaver dams was washed out. This has resulted in changes in water tables. øNormally the channel would fill up with water in the spring, it would flood the valley floor, water would sink into the ground, and water would come back to the river in the summertime," Fouty says. øBecause thats not happening a lot except in huge flood events now, what you have is a very low water table, and if you go into a drought theres nothing to feed the stream again."
Severe weather events would occur even without climate change, though climate change predicates that future water sources will be less reliable than they are now. In periods of both surge and scarcity, beaver have the potential to make water a little more predictable.
øWe need to be creating systems that have abundant water storage, lots of groundwater, so that when we get these fluctuating climate events that come through ‹ maybe a period of high precipitation ‹ we dont have all that water heading for those streams and making those channels wider and eroding banks," hydrologist Fouty says. øOr we dont have periods where we have a five-year drought or a ten-year drought and streams are going dry."
Beaver stabilize water ecosystems, because the ponds they create have the effect of evening out the flow of water throughout the year. Droughts and floods occur, but beaver ponds hold back water in both circumstances. As a result, floods are less severe and excess water sustains creeks and rivers during droughts. In the absence of beaver ponds, water rushes downstream during floods and nothing remains to alleviate droughts.
A consistent water flow provides habitat for species like Coho salmon, which thrive in the cold water of beaver ponds. Scientific studies have shown that Coho can survive for a time in less than ideal circumstances, as long as the water continues to flow.
While many Oregonians may understand that beaver dams are fish habitat, whats less obvious is that beaver provide a service to neo-tropical migratory birds as well. øThere used to be a huge wetland system, and now thats mostly gone," Fouty says. øImagine a bird thats doing a 5,000 mile migration, and there are just these little tiny pockets of wetlands still around." Wetland habitat expands from the higher water table created by beaver, also benefiting amphibians. Fouty suggests, øI think the question is: What animal doesnt benefit from having beaver around?"
Fouty worries that beaver restoration work isnt keeping pace with climate change. In order for beaver to thrive and continue their ecological engineering, they need trees like aspen, willow and cottonwood, which sometimes have been eliminated from ecosystems (often due to a dropped water table caused by beaver loss). øThere is a process that requires multiple steps and it takes time," she says. øThe longer we wait, the narrower and narrower our window is for us to be able to be effective, and for beaver to be effective."
Leaving it to beaver
Stanley Petrowski has been involved in watershed restoration for years. He says that reintroducing beaver to native habitat like the headwaters of the Umpqua River would help reduce the impacts of climate change and improve endangered salmon runs.
ODFWs Beaver Working Group and the Southern Umpqua Rural Communities Partnerships Beaver Advocacy Committee have identified watersheds that could support beaver at a remove from human development. Historically these areas hosted beaver, though they are now beaver-less. The organizations introduced mated pairs of the monogamous animals, tails implanted with tracking devices, and monitored them closely for 60 days. About a third of them didnt stay where the conservationists originally put them, and some died due to predation. But since all of the beaver were reported as nuisances by human neighbors, they still had a better chance in the forest than near people who were free to kill them.
øWhat we found so far was that the survival rates are such that translocation is a viable option for beaver management," Petrowski says. And so an official beaver policy was born.
The ODFWs relocation guidelines are new, but biologist Penny Harris of the Willamette National Forests McKenzie Ranger District is already investigating how she can best put them to use. øOur goal is to try and use natural processes like beaver to help retain wetland for longer time during the summer months, especially with climate change," Harris says. øThe water is getting shallower and shallower during the summer months."
Harris says that the ODFW has approved four areas in the McKenzie Ranger District that have adequate food, timber and predator protection to provide beaver with new home, and theyre examining more beaver-friendly locations in the area.
Restoring ecosystems and supporting endangered species motivates ODFWs Corrarino to support beaver relocations, though he suggests that landowners who seek only to rid their property of beaver should first consider plausible ways to live alongside the furry little beast. Contraptions that control pond levels and protect trees and culverts can be found online, and Oregonians can also contact the ODFW to talk beaver tactics.
Petrowski says that a member of the Beaver Advocacy Committee usually can dissuade complaining landowners of their distaste for beaver. øA lot of this has to do with giving them nuisance status," he says. Without that label, he thinks people would be more inclined to recognize that beaver draw salmon and have irrigation benefits, as well.
Shooting or relocating beaver may be ineffective to property owners in the long run, Corrarino cautions, because beaver could return anyway. øIf its attractive to beaver," he says, øtheres a good chance theyll be back."û