In Oregon, a peculiar case for protecting the beaver

Using the Endangered Species Act, a novel strategy could protect keystone species.

 

For three decades, Susan Sherosick has lived on 32 acres deep in the southwest Oregon woods, in a peaceful hollow bracketed by streams that flow into the Umpqua River. Out here, raccoons and black bears weave through the willows, and a resident cougar deposits twisted scat behind her house. Every Thanksgiving, salmon swim into her front yard to spawn.

Sherosick, like many Westerners, also lives in uneasy detente with another, more challenging species. Beavers routinely fell her cottonwoods and convert her creeks to wetlands. Twice, she has asked the county to send a trapper, though she tries to leave the animals alone. But when new dams flooded her house this winter, she drew the line. “Pretty soon I couldn’t flush the toilet,” she recalls. “It was like living in a marsh.” 

When Sherosick called for a trapper this time, though, she never heard back. She isn’t sure why her pleas went unanswered. But it’s likely she’d become caught in the middle of an unusual legal battle, one that could upend how the West’s wildlife agencies manage the region’s most influential rodent.

An adult beaver adds mud to a dam. Beavers are a common rodent, but they're a keystone species important to the survival of endangered salmon..

The case revolves around Wildlife Services, the branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture tasked with managing problematic animals. Although the agency performs many uncontroversial functions, like vaccinating raccoons against rabies and controlling feral pigs, it’s notorious among conservationists for killing native predators, eliminating 332 cougars, 415 wolves, and over 76,000 coyotes in 2016 alone. It also killed more than 21,000 beavers nationwide last year, including 319 in Oregon.

Among Wildlife Services’ fiercest antagonists is the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. The center has sued the agency in Idaho, California, Colorado and other states, accusing of it failure to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, the law that requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of their actions. So it shouldn’t have been surprising when the center, along with the Western Environmental Law Center and Northwest Environmental Advocates, notified Wildlife Services this November that it planned to take it to court over its Oregon beaver-killing. But this time, rather than citing NEPA, the center was wielding a much tougher law, the Endangered Species Act.

At first blush, this seemed perplexing. The Endangered Species Act is designed to conserve rare flora and fauna; meanwhile, beavers are ubiquitous, found from Alaska’s tundra line to northern Mexico. This case, however, hinges on Castor canadensis’s unique environmental influence. Beavers are a “keystone species,” an organism whose pond-creating powers support entire biological communities. In Oregon, a host of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead runs depend on them. By killing beavers without accounting for the destruction of rodent-built critical habitat, the environmental groups argue, Wildlife Services risks jeopardizing federally protected fish.

It’s a curious strategy with little precedent. “There’s a nice legal point here, but I’m not sure what the practical implications will be,” says Pat Parenteau, an endangered species expert at the Vermont Law School. But it’s also a sign that society’s relationship to beavers is changing, and, if it succeeds, it could spur agencies and landowners to seek new approaches to living alongside meddlesome rodents. “This,” says Jakob Shockey, a wildlife biologist who specializes in beaver management, “is the legal argument we’ve all been waiting for.”

 

A sockeye salmon jumps over a beaver dam. Beavers help build critical habitat for young salmon.
Dr. Jeffrey S. Jensen, University of Washington, Bothell

Perhaps no state is as closely linked to a wild animal as Oregon is to beavers. They are Oregon’s official animal, the mascot of its largest university, the source of its nickname. When, in 1849, the Oregon Territory defied the federal government by forming its own mint, beavers featured on the coins. To this day, a golden beaver, waddling across a navy field, adorns the state’s flag.

The Beaver State’s fixation reflects an intimate historical connection. Fur trappers, lured Northwest by the promise of “hairy banknotes,” explored the Columbia River’s tributaries, established the region’s first non-Native settlements, and pioneered the Oregon Trail. The trade pillaged streams so thoroughly that the state banned beaver trapping from 1899 to 1918. The animal’s population soon began to recover — just as Oregon’s human communities were growing, too.

Like people, beavers are inventive tool-users who favor valley bottoms and relentlessly modify their environments. They’re notorious for clogging culverts, felling timber, and, as Susan Sherosick knows too well, flooding yards. Those conflicts are particularly acute along the beaver-rich streams that vein western Oregon. According to records acquired by the Center for Biological Diversity, between 2010 and 2016, Wildlife Services killed 282 beavers in Coos County, 198 in Douglas County, and 292 in Lincoln County.

Beavers share Oregon’s creeks with nearly a dozen threatened and endangered runs of chinook, chum, sockeye and coho salmon, as well as other protected fish, including steelhead, bull trout and Warner suckers. A growing body of evidence suggests that by creating ponds, storing water, and converting straight streams into multi-threaded ones, beavers expand shelter for young fish and keep creeks well-hydrated. One 1992 study found that two-thirds of Oregon’s coastal coho overwintered in beaver ponds and slackwaters. In its coho recovery plan, the National Marine Fisheries Service recommends “encouraging the formation of beaver dams.”

“There is little dispute that beavers improve streams,” says Kent Woodruff, a former U.S. Forest Service biologist in Washington who spearheaded a relocation program called the Methow Beaver Project. “The scientific literature is solid on the multiple benefits beavers provide.

That literature underpins the environmental groups’ case against Wildlife Services. The Center for Biological Diversity and its allies charged that the agency has a responsibility under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act to consult with the Fisheries Service to ensure that its beaver-killing isn’t jeopardizing listed salmon. On Dec. 27, the gambit cleared its first hurdle. Wildlife Services notified the center that it had agreed to consult — and that it would let beavers live while the review progressed. The agency, wrote David Williams, its Oregon director, “has ceased all aquatic mammal damage management activities in Oregon related to damage caused by beaver, river otter, muskrat, and mink out of an abundance of caution.”

Now comes a trek through the bureaucratic maze. Wildlife Services consented to submit a biological assessment to the National Marine Fisheries Service by Feb. 28. If both agencies agree that killing beavers is likely to harm protected fish, they’ll undergo a formal consultation that could end with a biological opinion, a document specifying measures for reducing damage to salmon habitat. In neighboring Washington, where Wildlife Services did consult with with the Fisheries Service, the agency committed to restrictions on beaver killing — agreeing, for instance, to concentrate its trapping on agricultural drainage channels rather than salmon streams. “We’re hoping that the outcome of the consultation is that there’s no more trapping of beaver in critical occupied salmonid habitat,” says Collette Adkins, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Whatever happens, the case’s symbolic significance is hard to miss. Around the West, a burgeoning coalition of “Beaver Believers” is relocating, conserving, or imitating beavers to improve sage grouse habitat, build wetlands for swans, store groundwater, boost cattle forage and repair eroded streams. Although Wildlife Services has been a powerful headwind in the face of that momentum, its willingness to consult in Oregon hints that the agency is capable of viewing beavers as boons as well as pests. And further legal action seems likely: “We’re talking to all of our partners about beavers,” says Andrew Hawley, staff attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, “and what we can be doing to help change how they’re managed throughout the West.”

Beaver State Wildlife Solutions installs a flow device in Little Canyon Creek, on Susan Sherosick's property outside Sutherlin Oregon.
Courtesy of Beaver State Wildlife Solutions

The Beaver State has not been kind to its eponymous rodents. Oregon, in defiance of biology, classifies these herbivores as predators, a designation that allows landowners to shoot them on sight. Some advocates worry that, if Wildlife Services’ ability to control beavers is curtailed, the agency’s “cooperators” — the counties and other land managers with whom it contracts — will simply hire private trappers, increasing undocumented killings. Beaver removal could continue unabated, but without the government tracking kills: a data-deficient free-for-all.

Adkins, though, is more optimistic. Because it’s a federal agency, she points out, Wildlife Services offers services to cooperators at prices that private trappers can’t match. By limiting federally subsidized trapping on salmon streams, conservationists hope to spur land managers to seek less deadly solutions. “Lethal management will probably never be taken off the books,” says Leonard Houston, a Douglas County resident who has live-trapped and relocated dozens of beavers under the auspices of the South Umpqua Rural Community Parnership, “but our hope is that this will make it a last option.”

For one beaver colony, the case has already made a difference. After Susan Sherosick’s trapping requests went unanswered, she contacted Houston, whose name she’d seen in the newspaper. One Tuesday in January, Houston and Jakob Shockey, the founder of a company called Beaver State Wildlife Solutions, visited Sherosick’s land to install a flow device, a pipe-and-fence contraption designed to lower beaver ponds, thereby sparing both property and the animals’ lives. Shockey’s services have been solicited elsewhere in Oregon by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and myriad watershed councils and transportation departments. “There are lots of people interested in seeing beavers persist on the landscape,” he says.

Sherosick, who appreciates her beavers despite the headaches, is one of them. And the price was right: Shockey’s flow device, funded by the Rural Community Partnership, didn’t cost her a penny. When I spoke with her several days later, she seemed cautiously optimistic about her ability to cohabitate with her buck-toothed neighbors. “The water’s down far enough now that it’s not hurting anything,” she said. “I’m waiting to see how it works out. It’s only been a week.”

Ben Goldfarb is the author of the forthcoming book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter (Chelsea Green Publishing, June 2018).

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