For 30 years, Susan Sherosick has lived in uneasy proximity to beavers. The tireless rodents routinely fell the cottonwoods that line her 32 acres in southwest Oregon and dam her creeks into 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 again drew the line.
“Pretty soon I couldn’t flush the toilet,” she told me. “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 Sherosick had 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.
The case revolves around Wildlife Services, the branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture tasked with managing problematic animals. The agency killed more than 21,000 beavers nationwide last year, including 319 in Oregon. That irks conservation groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, which in November notified Wildlife Services that it planned to sue the agency in Oregon — where, it claimed, the federal government’s beaver killing violates the Endangered Species Act.
At first blush, this seemed perplexing. The Endangered Species Act is designed to conserve rare flora and fauna, and beavers are found from Alaska’s tundra line to northern Mexico. But beavers are a “keystone species,” an organism whose pond-creating powers support entire biological communities.
In Oregon, beavers’ beneficiaries include a host of threatened and endangered fish, including chinook, chum, sockeye and coho salmon. 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.”
“By eliminating beavers without accounting for the destruction of beaver-built critical habitat, conservationists argue, Wildlife Services risks jeopardizing federally protected fish.”
By eliminating beavers without accounting for the destruction of beaver-built critical habitat, conservationists argue, Wildlife Services risks jeopardizing federally protected fish. According to the Center for Biological Diversity and its allies, 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 harming listed salmon.
On Dec. 27, the unique legal 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.
Although the agency consented to submit a biological assessment to the Fisheries Service by Feb. 28, it hasn’t yet done so. If both agencies eventually agree that killing beavers is likely to harm protected fish, they’ll undergo a formal consultation that could end with specific measures for reducing damage. In neighboring Washington, for instance, the agency agreed 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,” said 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 often been a powerful headwind in the face of that momentum, its willingness to consult in Oregon hints that it’s capable of viewing beavers as boons as well as pests.
For one beaver colony, the case has already made a difference. After Susan Sherosick’s trapping requests went unanswered, she contacted a wildlife biologist named Jakob Shockey, the founder of a company called Beaver State Wildlife Solutions. Shockey visited Sherosick’s land to install a flow device, a pipe-and-fence contraption designed to lower beaver ponds, sparing both property and the animals’ lives. Shockey’s services have been solicited elsewhere in Oregon by agencies from the National Marine Fisheries Service to the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There are lots of people interested in seeing beavers persist on the landscape,” he said.
Sherosick, who appreciates her beavers despite the headaches, is among them. When I spoke with her last month, 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.”
Ben Goldfarb is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the author of the forthcoming book, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter.