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Conservationists: Beaver Killings Threaten Ecosystems, Salmon

Litigation over the killing of beavers in Oregon may set a precedent by highlighting the important role that the animals play in ecosystem health, says journalist Ben Goldfarb.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Beavers are considered by many to be pests because of the infrastructure and property damage that they cause, but they also provide some very valuable ecosystem services.Courtesy of Ben Goldfarb

In Oregon, the beaver is symbolic. It is the state animal, Oregon State University’s mascot is an orange beaver and the animal even appears on the state flag. Yet in 2016, Wildlife Services, a division of the Department of Agriculture, killed 403 of them in the state. In response, on November 2 the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Northwest Environmental Advocates filed an intent to sue Wildlife Services with the Commerce Department and the Department of the Interior.

Wildlife Services’ mission is to “resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist,” according to the agency’s website. What that has often meant in practice is trapping and killing animals that impact, or have the potential to impact, human infrastructure, agriculture and health. Beaver dams, for example, often flood or damage property.

Wildlife Services argues that its practices protect people, farmers and ranchers, and it uses non-lethal measures where possible (though this is hotly debated). Nonetheless, the agency’s killing of wildlife has made it a target of environmental groups around the country, including the CBD, a nonprofit based in Tucson, Arizona.

With the intent-to-sue action, CBD is taking a new and unique approach. Beavers change the water and landscape in ways that benefit threatened species, including the Oregon coast Coho salmon. By killing beavers, which themselves are not threatened or endangered, the CBD argues, Wildlife Services is damaging an ecosystem that threatened wildlife depend on, and therefore the agency is in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act. If the government does not ensure its beaver eradication program won’t jeopardize protected wildlife and initiation consultations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the program’s impact on those species within 60 days, CBD and Oregon-based Northwest Environmental Advocates will file a lawsuit.

Ben Goldfarb is an environmental journalist who has written extensively about Wildlife Services and beavers, including an upcoming book from Chelsea Green Publishing on how scientists, land managers and farmers are working to protect beavers to achieve environmental goals. Water Deeply spoke with Goldfarb about beavers, the legal action and how it fits into the larger battle of environmental groups against Wildlife Services.

Water Deeply: Have you seen many legal cases about the fate of beavers? How unique is this?

Ben Goldfarb: This is pretty unique to my knowledge. I think that what makes this so unique is that it is explicitly acknowledging how important these animals are for other species. Beaver are often referred to as a keystone species, in that their dams and ponds and wetlands support all kinds of other organisms. There have been lots of cases about [stopping the] killing beavers out of concern for the beavers themselves, but this is explicitly acknowledging their role in creating habitat. To me, that is fascinating and in some ways, possibly precedent setting.

Water Deeply: What is the argument for culling beavers?

Goldfarb: Beavers are very difficult to live with in a lot of respects. Like humans, they’re very meddlesome creatures and they modify their environment. Where human infrastructure and beaver infrastructure collide, there is lots of potential for conflict.

Beavers frequently clog culverts – the pipes that lead under roads – and that can lead to road flooding and the destruction of roads. They cut down trees, which can be dangerous for property. They flood people’s houses and fields.

Water Deeply: What environmental services do beavers provide? Why are beavers so important to an ecosystem and to a watershed?

Goldfarb: The primary thing that beavers do is they slow down flows and they impound lots of water. Those slower flows in ponds and wetlands are really important for all kinds of reasons. The big one is water storage; they keep water on the landscape for longer, which makes it available not only to animals, but to human users as well. A lot of that water infiltrates into the ground, so [beavers] help to recharge aquifers.

From a salmon standpoint, they’re unbelievably critical. Think about what it’s like to be a baby salmon – you’re this tiny little creature that gets eaten by bigger fish and birds and all kinds of things, and you’re looking for a nice, slow bit of slack water in which you can take refuge. You don’t want to be in the main channel because then you just get blown downstream. For a juvenile salmon or trout, you can’t really conceive of better habitat than a beaver pond or wetland.

Water Deeply: Wildlife Service has been killing beavers for decades, and the number killed in 2016 was not especially high compared to years past. Why do you think this legal action is coming now?

Beaver dams can reshape entire ecosystems by slowing the flow of water. This can help other species, like salmon. (Courtesy of Ben Goldfarb)

Goldfarb: One tactic that lots of conservation groups are now using against Wildlife Services is trying to force the agency to account for the environmental impacts of their actions and to perform environmental assessments. Here that strategy is being applied to beavers, but in 2015 there was a big lawsuit against the agency taking part in wolf killing in Washington, and the judge actually blocked Wildlife Services from killing wolves in the state of Washington until the agency performed some kind of environmental assessment.

To me, this beaver-related lawsuit is part of this trend of conservation groups trying to find points of leverage against Wildlife Services.

In many cases the agency has been killing animals without fully considering the impact of how those animals fit into ecosystems, and conservation groups are trying to make the agency account for that. And, because beavers are a keystone species that have a disproportionate effect on ecosystems, they’re a really good candidate for being a leverage point.

Water Deeply: Given that you have written about these kinds of cases and about Wildlife Services before, if you had to guess, how do you think this case will turn out?

Goldfarb: I really have no idea how it is going to turn out. I would say that there is certainly enough scientific evidence to demonstrate that beavers are good for salmon. I really don’t know enough about the law to say one way or the other.

Wildlife Services – and other wildlife agencies – tend to have very shoot-first-ask-questions-later responses to beavers; they see a conflict, and figure that the best way that we can alleviate the conflict is by getting rid of the beaver, lethally. But, actually in many cases, it is not the best response. There are all kinds of ways that we can mitigate beaver conflicts without resorting to having to kill the beavers.

The primary tool for beaver coexistence is this thing called the flow device, which is basically a system of pipes that passes water from the beaver pond to downstream and mitigates flooding, so you can leave beavers in place, install a flow device and not have to worry about flooding impacts.

I would say that I think that this lawsuit is really aimed at making Wildlife Services use more of these non-lethal techniques, like flow devices, rather than resorting to killing beavers as their primary response.

Water Deeply: What do you think is the future of human-beaver interactions?

Goldfarb: The problem is that good beaver habitat is the same as good human habitat. We both like low-gradient, fertile river valleys. That’s where we’ve build our towns and our farms and our infrastructure. Today, we’re occupying a lot of the habitat that beavers would like to use. It’s not possible to get back to the place that we once were with beavers in every stream and pond and wetland. But, certainly, I think that we’re at a tiny fraction of where we could be.

There was a big beaver assessment in Utah. They found that beavers were in something like, [eight to 17 percent] of the available stream habitat. I think that we could get to 50 [percent] – I think that’s doable. There will always be places where humans and beavers can’t coexist, unfortunately, but certainly there are lots of opportunity to bring these animals back to our landscapes.

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