The beaver whisperer

A biologist figures out how to keep beavers alive on Western landscapes.

 

Biologists with the Methow Valley Beaver Project release a beaver named Big Bella into a tributary of 8-Mile Creek in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

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.

Big Bella waddles out of the cage that Methow Valley Beaver Project scientists used to transport her to a tributary high in the watershed where they hope her dam building skills will create a pond and wetlands, enhancing water storage in the mountains. The project coordinator and Forest Service biologist Kent Woodruff watches in the background.

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.

Because the crew traps more male troublemakers than females, some, like Dale, must be released before hooking up. Yet most find soulmates. “A lot of programs catch ’em in one place and immediately release in another — there’s no effort to form compatible groups,” says Michael Pollock, an ecosystems analyst at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “The care separates the Methow program.”

The beavers don’t always cooperate: One turned up near Canada, 120 miles from its release. Still, the Methow crew has established families in 39 places using 329 beavers — less than nine per location, well below half of McKinstry’s ratio. Methow workshops have become a rite of passage for beaver traffickers: The week after my visit, Woodruff hosted scientists from six states.

A beaver in the holding ponds at the Methow Valley Beaver Project, where it will stay until it’s relocated back into the wild.

The day before Sandy and Chomper’s scheduled release, Woodruff drives up dirt roads to McFarland Creek. Two furry engineers, released just last spring, have erected a dam here that would impress the Bureau of Reclamation: half the length of a city block, solid as a brick wall, dogwoods sprouting from its ramparts. Downed aspen clogs the swamp; the funk of decomposition fills the air. The fly-fisherman in me is horrified.

Still, life is thriving. Woodruff cups his ear to the chatter of a Swainson’s thrush, a warbling vireo, a song sparrow. Moose, frogs and salamanders haunt nearby ponds. “Places like this, where things are dying and growing, are where the wetland machinery is functioning,” Woodruff says, pointing out bear tracks. By that logic, many iconic trout streams — fast, pellucid, narrow — are relics of Europe’s 19th century hat fetish.

Restoring historic landscapes could hedge against a modern problem: climate change. Last winter, the Cascades’ precipitation fell as rain rather than snow, instigating a water-storage shortfall that left farmers and salmon parched. “Hundreds of billions of gallons come from those snowpack faucets, but the reservoir is going dry,” Woodruff says. “How can we capture that water? The propagandist in me says: I know.”  

Still, beaver fever has spread slowly. Oregon classifies beavers as predators, the same despised category as coyotes, when they’re found on private land. California unofficially denies they’re native to the Bay Area and Southern California, despite evidence to the contrary. In 2012, even Washington prohibited moving beavers from the state’s rural eastern half to its densely settled west. The message: Keep the pests away from people.

Relocate a beaver to an unfriendly area, warns Joe Cannon, beaver project leader at the Lands Council, a Spokane-based nonprofit, and you likely doom it. “There’s still cultural fear,” Cannon says. “I hear the word ‘infestation’ sometimes, like they’re rats.”

 

Releasing Big Bella, a video from The Beaver Believers.

Back in the Methow Valley, Woodruff’s team has reached Bear Creek, Sandy and Chomper’s prospective home. A blue haze from Canadian wildfires blankets the basin. Woodruff warns Means not to park on dry grass, lest the sizzling muffler ignite a blaze.

Fire is never far from the crew’s mind. In 2014, the Carlton Complex tore through this spot, charring lodgepoles that cling to the draw. Yet the inferno regenerated ecosystems, too. Today, aspen shoots line Bear Creek, providing prime beaver food. In turn, Woodruff hopes the creatures will quell fire by dampening meadows and drowning flammable understory.  

First, Sandy and Chomper have to settle in. The humans — Woodruff, Rohrer, Means, Weber, and biologists Julie Nelson and Torre Stockard — slap aside thimbleberry as they hike upstream, toting the beavers like royalty in metal palanquins. Eventually they reach the final ingredient in Woodruff’s recipe: a human-built lodge. The structure will shield the beavers from predators until the immigrants construct a permanent home.

“You don’t know how it’s gonna go until they’re in there,” Weber worries as the team lowers the cages. “When you come back and see them nearby, you get teary-eyed.” The beavers waddle into the fort — smelly meat packages already yearning to reshape their environment. Homo sapiens and Castor canadensis, it occurs to me, have much in common. We hear squeals inside the lodge. Woodruff optimistically interprets them as delight.

“The Methow Valley has 15 to 20 percent of its historic beaver population,” Woodruff estimates as his muddy crew hikes back through the aspen. Returning to 100 percent is impossible — the region is too altered, the resistance too fierce. But even 40 percent will reshape the land. “We’re not smart enough to know what a fully functional ecosystem looks like,” he says, wiping his brow. “But they are.”