Beaver Nation: the struggle to co-exist

Oregonians have a love-hate relationship with beavers. We slaughtered them to near-extinction because we favored hats made of beaver pelts, then adorned the back side of the state flag with a beaver silhouette. We kill them because their dams flood our fields and their teeth gnaw through “our” valuable trees, but then celebrate them as the beloved icon of a local State University.

At the root of the troubled relationship lies the fact that Homo Sapiens and Castor Canadensis are perhaps the two most successful species in the world at modifying their environment, but happen to have different ideas on how that environment should be modified.

For the last five years, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) group known as the Beaver Working Group has sought to mend the relationship between human and rodent. It does this in large part by relocating “nuisance” beavers—beavers that block culverts and strip trees and engage in other beaverish activities—to sites where these very same activities are regarded as ecologically beneficial.

Charlie Corrarino, ODFW Fish Conservation and Recovery manager, coordinates the Beaver Working Group, which includes department biologists and external stakeholders from academic institutions, other state and federal agencies, trapping organizations, and private landowners. “All of (our) research projects are designed to help us answer the question, how do we maximize the ecological benefits of beaver while minimizing the negative impacts?” Corrarino has stated.

Ecological Benefits

The ecological benefits of beavers stem from the fact that they’ve been an integral part of the North American ecosystem for the past ten-thousand years (longer, if you factor in their eight-foot long Pleistocene relatives). Beaver dams, by slowing water velocity and trapping sediment, make streams cleaner and restore eroded banks. Beaver ponds cause ground water levels to rise, creating ecologically diverse wetlands. Their cool, deep, nutrient-rich ponds provide critical habitats for the endangered Coho salmon, mid-Columbia summer steelhead, and bull trout.

Negative Impacts

While beavers’ obsessive engineering qualities have myriad ecological benefits, they can also be extremely destructive. A beaver dam in the wrong place—say, a highway culvert—can flood roads, fields, and yards. A single industrious beaver is capable of stripping and felling an inordinate amount of ornamental plantings and commercially valuable trees. Occasionally they’ll girdle a large tree just to sharpen their teeth.

The Beaver Dichotomy

Little wonder we have such a schizophrenic relationship with beaver. For example, consider the Oregon state statutes that define a beaver on public land as a “Protected Furbearer” and that same beaver on private land as a “Predatory Animal,” which means they can be killed by the landowner without a permit.

The Beaver Working Group seeks to supplant such killings by offering to live-capture beavers from where they’re not wanted and release them in places where they are. For example, Corrarino and the group are working with the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to determine “hotspots” of nuisance beaver activity along Oregon’s roads and highways. At the same time, they are reaching out to local Watershed Councils to help determine where these nuisance beavers can be relocated.

And there’s the rub. One of the biggest hitches is determining locations for beaver releases, as much of this work is contingent upon private landowner education and outreach. Xan Augerot, Executive Director of the Marys River Watershed Council, says the council works “to make it easier to live with beavers,” but only to “variable” success. Echoing this, Corrarino admitted that more work has to be done in regards to private landowners’ incentives, garnering feedback, and developing “tools to help (the landowner) understand beavers’ roles.”

However, a recent survey of “landowner attitudes toward beavers” was conducted by Oregon State University’s Dr. Mark Needham and Dr Anita Morzillo. The majority of respondents to the survey claimed to be interested in both seeing (65%) and having (57%) beavers on their property or neighboring properties, especially in the Coast region.

Coexistence

Ultimately, the mission of what Corrarino described as this “outstanding program” is to encourage coexistence between humans and beavers in what is, after all, the “Beaver State.” Coexisting might entail an appreciation for how much we share in common as species—we’re both industrious, we both may or may not mate for life, and we both tend to become less active during winter, spending most of our time in our “den.” More importantly, coexistence might entail an acknowledgement—however slight—that, ecologically speaking, we’re far more of a nuisance than any beaver.

Want a beaver?

ODFW has developed guidelines for private landowners interested in hosting beaver. These guidelines are designed to “maximize the ecological benefits provided by beaver while minimizing potential conflicts.” A potential site must first be evaluated and approved by an ODFW Wildlife Biologist as suitable habitat for a beaver colony. The majority of landowners within 5–6 miles upstream and 5–6 miles downstream from the release site must “cooperate” with the program. Once a beaver or a family of beavers is released, the beavers must be monitored and evaluated for a set time.

 

by Nathanial Brodie

 

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