BUSY BEAVERS

Beavers in Washington state are being relocated to areas where they will make a positive impact on shifting ecosystems.

Story by Allison Greener| Photos by Mike Hitchner

The beaver, with its buck teeth and sleek brown body, is a clever woodsman. And as it turns out, its abode provides benefits to the surrounding environment.

Projects to relocate beavers to threatened habitats across the Pacific Northwest, such as the Methow Beaver Project, aim to restore and make such areas more resilient. New research indicates beavers and their dams may be a natural check against some impacts of climate change.

The goal of the Methow Beaver Project is to relocate beavers causing problems on private land in urban and suburban areas to the Methow Valley of Washington State, located along the eastern side of the North Cascades. Here, their architectural tendencies can be put to work. Beavers cause headaches by plugging road culverts, cutting down trees and flooding commercial orchards. A small number of beavers behind such problems are trapped, brought to the Winthrop National Hatchery, tagged, weighed, photographed and then wait there to be relocated.

Julie Nelson, the education and outreach coordinator for the project described herself as the “major wrangler” and has experienced the many sides of beaver personalities first-hand.

“The beavers are very easy to work with,” said Nelson. “They are very docile, it’s like working with a dog or a cat. They all have personalities. Some of them will huddle in their lodges in the hatchery with their eyes closed like, ‘this is a horrible thing, it will all go away soon.’ And then some will just swim with great confidence like [they] own the place.”

One memorable beaver that Nelson encountered was dubbed “Half-Tail Dale” by the team. He came into the hatchery with half of his tail and one of his back feet missing.

“What a survivor, you know? He was a hearty fellow. We had great appreciation for him,” said Nelson.

After they arrive at the hatchery, the beavers wait for the rest of their family to be trapped and brought in, which can take two days to three weeks. Beavers form very close-knit social groups, so it is important for them to be relocated together. Once all of the family is captured and ready to be released, the beavers are transported from the hatchery to the upper reaches of the Methow watershed, a large expanse of forested terrain surrounded by the Cascade Mountains to the west and the Buckhorn Mountains to the east.

North America was historically a beaver-rich landscape with populations in the hundreds of millions. But trapping practices in the early days of colonization devastated their numbers. Evolving alongside these beavers were many of the native plants and animals we see today.

“That’s a very big part of why so many creatures depend on water- because historically they had this rodent that was creating water around the landscape for them,” said Ben Goldfarb, author of the book Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter.

The Methow Valley beaver populations of the 1930’s were high, but after settlers arrived and agricultural communities expanded, populations declined rapidly, said Nelson.

With the historical decline in beaver populations came the decline of the wetland ecosystems they create, an issue further exacerbated by the warming effects of climate change. Today, beavers relocated to the Methow Valley create large stores of water, said Nelson.

As more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, and is lost as runoff, finding new means of water storage is more important than ever.

“The water [from the beaver ponds] is going to percolate through the groundwater. It will come up somewhere downstream, it will be colder, it will be clean,” said Nelson. “Then of course the other part of it is beaver ponds are great for biodiversity.”

As beavers build their dams, they change the way water and sediment flow through streams. This causes a buildup of organic material that give species at the bottom of the food web a boost in their food supply. What results is a boom in biodiversity from the bottom up.

“In nature, often times the messier things are the better,” said Ben Dittbrenner, executive director of Beavers Northwest, a nonprofit based in Shoreline, Washington that focuses on educating the public about beavers.

According to Dittbrenner, beaver dams create complexity and variation in habitats. As they cause water to spread and disperse to lowland areas, new sources of food spring up for other animals, like deer and elk. This is how beavers and their dams are helping to restore habitats and grow the environment’s resilience to the ever-changing climate.

Beaver dams may also be contributing to ecological resilience by cooling downstream temperatures, said Dittbrenner. He recently participated in a research project that sought to find a distinct link between the presence of beavers and lower stream temperatures. In the regions where beavers were relocated, Dittbrenner and his team found substantial amounts of cooling in dammed streams. This finding is important for aquatic species such as salmon, that are sensitive to warmer temperatures.

“[This] was very positive because we were hoping to see that we could put beavers in areas that were expecting to see an increase in stream temperature due to climate change, and we would either stabilize those temperatures or see a decrease, and we did see that,” said Dittbrenner.

The Methow Beaver Project has been working on a stream temperature study with the Department of Ecology, and they are hoping to publish their findings this summer, Nelson said.

Projects working to relocate beavers are popping up all over the country as more people come to realize how helpful these critters are.

“In the American West in particular, water is life,” said Goldfarb. “Any animal that is capable of creating these watery habitats is unbelievably valuable.”

The Planet is Western Washington University’s award-winning quarterly environmental publication and the only undergraduate environmental magazine in the U.S.