Friday, August 10, 2012

Beavers— Furry troublemakers or buck-toothed saviors?

By Jani Gilbert, Eastern Region Communications Manager

The beaver bill went into effect this summer in Washington state. The work of beavers was admired by Democrats and Republicans alike during the last session when they unanimously passed HB 2349. After all, beavers appear to be the best water managers around and they really don’t ignite quite the controversy that other forms of water management do.

The Lands Council Beaver team traps and relocates "nuisance" beaver.
That’s not to say there aren’t disagreements. Beavers tend to either charm their human landlords or drive them crazy. So the beaver bill makes it possible to catch beaver where they are not wanted and move them to a place where they are.

Why all the fuss for big, furry, flat-tailed rodents? Of interest to our water programs in the Department of Ecology (Ecology), beavers store rainwater, raise groundwater levels and create wetlands which retain snowmelt, while trapping sediment and making streams much cleaner. Find out more in this Beaver Solution video produced by the Spokane-based Lands Council’s Beaver Solution project that launched its efforts in 2010 with a $50,000 grant from Ecology.

The new law

The new law helps to improve the state’s water management infrastructure by relocating and maintaining healthy beaver populations.The beaver bill did three main things:

It authorized the Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to release captured beavers on land where the property owner agrees and where they are unlikely to get into trouble. It must be a place where beavers have lived in the past. But here are the most important criteria: They must only be released where beavers can make a difference in the health of the riparian area. Wildlife biologists will look at the gradient of the stream, the adequacy of food sources, the elevation, and the stream geomorphology as well as how the capture and release is done.

The bill required WDFW to maintain a website that reports where beavers are getting into “nuisance beaver activity” and information about beaver relocation efforts.

Finally, WDFW must convene a stakeholder's forum by the end of this year. The agency is planning to have the stakeholder forum in October. The date and location will be announced soon.

The Newport Miner weekly newspaper in Pend Oreille County ran a story on beavers this month. The article quoted Lixing Sun, a biology professor and beaver specialist at Central Washington University, who agreed that beavers can be nuisances but they do serve a valuable ecological function. Find out more about the benefits of beavers here.

The problem with the beaver

How can a cute beaver be a nuisance? Reporter Don Gronning with the Newport Miner wrote:

“Each year the beaver gets some attention at lake communities such as Sacheen and Diamond Lake. Mostly it isn’t good attention.

‘It seems like beavers have always been a problem at the outflow of the lake,’ Perry Pearman of Sacheen Lake said. ‘There are four to six dams that control the lake levels here.’

What beavers probably are best known for is building dams. The dams serve a variety of beneficial functions. But they also block the outflow for the lakes. That can cause the water to rise and flood basements, cause septic tanks to overflow and generally create problems for property owners.

Landowners whose property is negatively affected by beavers have a right to protect their property, says Severin Erickson, wildlife agent with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.

‘There are several things people can do,’ he says. Erickson recommends people contact him before doing anything, however, as there are also several things people are prohibited from doing, at least without proper permits.”

Even before the Washington Legislature passed the beaver bill, important restoration work was being done in Eastern Washington by the Beaver Solution team. The organization educates the public about the vital role that beavers play in our environment, and, working with WDFW, conducts live trapping of entire families of “nuisance” beavers to safely relocate them to areas where they are needed.

The history of the beaver in Washington

Today, wildlife experts estimate the Washington beaver population at about 10,000. Agriculture and development have taken a toll on beaver habitat. The 10,000 estimate is down from tens of millions of the critters decades ago. According to the Lands Council, the number of beavers in Eastern Washington numbered just under half a million in 1810, when Europeans first settled near Spokane.

The Lands Council’s Beaver Solution Director, Amanda Parrish, said the beavers' abundance drew rival gangs of French, British and American trappers hunting for pelts. She was featured in a 2011Wall Street Journal article written by Joel Millman.

“Ultimately, over-trapping occurred, which upset nature's balance. Storage ponds that filled in behind beaver dams turned into marshes, then grasslands, which withered during summer and stopped supporting the willow and alder stands beavers require for food and building material.

‘Nowadays, you can pretty much bet in a place named Beaver Creek, or Beaver Pond, there are no beavers. They've been trapped out,’ says Ms. Parrish of the Lands Council.

Parrish offers some insight into what transpired in the area:

‘…in the Pacific Northwest beaver were trapped out for political reasons. The Hudson Bay Company in Canada thought that if beaver were trapped out completely from the Pacific Northwest the United States wouldn’t expand into the Pacific Northwest, because the land would be completely devalued, and so the Hudson Bay Company actually established a fur desert policy in this area around the Columbia River.’”


According to Mike Petersen, Executive Director of the Lands Council, the Beaver Solution team trapped and relocated seven families, 45 beaver, to appropriate habitat in 2010 and 2011. Also during the summers, the Lands Council studied the rate and extent at which beavers convert degraded land to functioning wetlands.

“We have established a few sites to monitor beaver activity and study the extent of disturbance and rate of wetland creation as a result of our management efforts,” explained ecologist Joe Cannon with the Lands Council.Cannon said one of the sites is California Creek, which runs into Hangman Creek and eventually into the Spokane River. California Creek is critical habitat for redband trout.

In 2010 and 2011 the Lands Council has relocated 45 beaver.
“We have taken preliminary stream assessment and vegetation data there,” said Cannon. “We also restricted beaver access to large diameter trees on the site, at the landowner's request, which will provide opportunity for us to study potential for long-term beaver habitation under such conditions. This is going to become the norm as our urban interface expands into the wild areas.

“We are observing that beavers are actually pretty good at getting by in marginal habitat, and are pretty comfortable near humans and developed areas,” Cannon said.

Mike Petersen said the beaver team also is working to address beaver related-damage before beavers are relocated. He said public outreach and education has changed landowner opinions.

“In 2011 we ran out of ‘nuisance’ cases because landowners we had been working with all year decided beaver removal was not the best option and asked for other means of damage management,” he said.
For example, Petersen explained, by installing flow devices, flooding can be stopped and the wetlands the beaver created can be saved. Proven, cost-effective devices and methods such as tree enclosures, Beaver Deceivers or Beaver Bafflers are available to control objectionable flooding and protect trees.

The roadblocks the Lands Council/Beaver Solution team has run into include the fact that landowners who want beaver don't always get them for a variety of reasons. Another challenge Petersen points to is that communication between agencies is missing.

“Many groups are working on different applications of beaver management throughout Washington,” Peterson said. “Before a comprehensive approach to beaver management can be determined, all interested stakeholders should have opportunity to give feedback.”

That will be the purpose of the Beaver Forum that is coming up in October, sponsored by WDFW.

1 comment:

Jen Vanderhoof said...

I'm pretty sure your estimate of 10,000 beavers in Washington State is at least an order of magnitude low. I have seen estimates of 400,000. Unfortunately, no one cites how they come up with these estimates. Nonetheless, by 1925, the beaver population in Washington State’s National Forests was 11,138 (USDA 1926, as cited in Seton 1929). I'm quite certain there are more beavers in the state now than were present in 1925.