The beaver whisperer
High Country News
When Chomper and Sandy met in a concrete pen in Winthrop, Washington, it was love at first sniff.
He’s an inquisitive 44-pound male, busted for felling apple trees. She’s a lustrous red-blonde, incarcerated for killing cottonwoods. Sandy had first been paired with an inmate named Hendrix, but they lacked chemistry. So her handlers transferred her to Chomper’s enclosure, where she nestled among woodchips and dug into apple slices.
The lovers are wards of the Methow Valley Beaver Project, a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation that, since 2008, has moved more than 300 beavers around the eastern Cascades. These beavers have damaged trees and irrigation infrastructure, and landowners want them gone. Rather than calling lethal trappers, a growing contingent notifies the Methow crew, which captures and relocates the offenders to the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and state land.
Why would Washington invite ditch-clogging nuisances — so loathed that federal Wildlife Services killed 22,000 nationwide in 2014 — into its wildlands? To hear Methow project coordinator Kent Woodruff tell it, beavers are landscape miracle drugs. Need to enhance salmon runs? There’s a beaver for that. Want to recharge groundwater? Add a beaver. Hoping to adapt to climate change? Take two beavers, and check back in a year.
Decades of research support Woodruff’s enthusiasm. Beaver wetlands filter sediments and pollutants from streams. They spread rivers across floodplains, allowing water to percolate into aquifers. They provide rearing grounds for young fish, limit flooding and keep ephemeral creeks flowing year-round.
“We want these guys everywhere,” says Woodruff, a white-stubbled Forest Service biologist with an evangelical gleam in his blue eyes. On this sweltering July morning, he watches as wildlife scientists Catherine Means and Katie Weber hoist Chomper and Sandy, now caged, into the truck that will convey them to the Okanogan-Wenatchee. “We want beavers up every stream, in all the headwaters.”
Since the project launched, six Washington entities, from tribes to nonprofits to state agencies, have followed its lead. While Northwestern ecologists were once content to let the critters recolonize creeks on their own, today’s land managers are surgically transplanting them to the places they’re needed most. But first, they must induce the wandering rodents to stay put — and Woodruff has come closest to mastering that art.
Humankind shares a sordid history with Castor canadensis. Fur trappers pillaged North America’s rivers, slashing beaver populations from more than 60 million to 100,000. Not until the 20th century did we begin to regard the creatures as more than pelts. In the 1930s, the federal government employed 600 beavers alongside the Civilian Conservation Corps to control erosion. A decade later, Idaho officials parachuted 76 beavers into drought-afflicted areas.
Few latter-day biologists advanced the cause as far as the University of Wyoming’s Mark McKinstry, who relocated 350 beavers between 1993 and 2002 to bolster riparian areas. Deer, moose and elk flourished in revived wetlands. Ranchers, their hayfields lush thanks to rising water tables, rejoiced.
But success had its costs. Beavers — “fat, slow, smelly packages of meat,” in McKinstry’s words — make delectable meals for coyotes, cougars and bears. Newly released beavers, which must navigate unfamiliar terrain without a sheltering lodge, are especially vulnerable. McKinstry established 16 colonies, but he had to release an average of 21 beavers per site.
That’s where Woodruff came in. Since arriving in the Okanagan in 1989, he’d focused on birds, installing nesting platforms for owls. But he yearned to leave an enduring legacy, and, in 2008, his opportunity arrived. John Rohrer, Woodruff’s supervisor, had been relocating beavers on a small scale since 2001 — even digging a holding pool in his own backyard. Meanwhile, the Washington Department of Ecology wanted to improve regional water quality. Woodruff thought beavers could help. He offered to expand Rohrer’s endeavor.
Beavers, Woodruff knew, were family-oriented: Three generations share a lodge. Though scientists tried to relocate entire units, catching some solo beavers was inevitable. Once released, lone animals face grave peril as they wander the landscape searching for companionship. Woodruff believed matching captive beavers with mates might encourage them to stay put upon relocation. He needed a rodent love motel.
He found one at the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facility that churns out salmon and steelhead. The hatchery’s oval raceways, with their flowing water and gnaw-proof concrete walls, made perfect pens. Woodruff built island-like cinderblock shacks and started moving in eligible bachelors and bachelorettes.
“This is the beaver Hilton,” he says as we wander the hatchery. “No predators, good food, clean shavings.” Beavers cruise like submarines, bubbles rising from matted fur. A battle-scarred male named Half-Tail Dale eyes us from his hut’s doorway, dexterous hands curled.
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