Recognition that American beavers are a vital and often missing component of riverine habitats is growing nationwide, especially in the Pacific Northwest.
Nearly wiped out across the West a century ago, beavers have spent recent decades regarded as a nuisance animal.
Now, their reputation as a keystone species is slowly taking hold.
The dams they create, for free, offer many of the same benefits as costly rehabilitation projects. Their work has been shown to expand floodplains and wetlands, recharge groundwater, provide higher summer flows, improve water quality, create healthy habitat for salmon and encourage a greater diversity of plants and animals.
The natural water storage they create slows the runoff process, keeps freshwater habitat cooler later into the summer and helps counter the impacts of drought.
And as wildfires become larger and more intense with climate change, beaver ponds have been shown to provide firebreaks and offer refuge for aquatic and land animals.
But environmental groups say policy makers in Oregon and Washington — where beavers continue to be managed as furbearers, nuisance animals and even predators — have been slow to respond.
Oregon—the Beaver State—allows unlimited killing of beavers, and has no mechanisms in place to track how many are taken each year. State agencies have no authority to manage them on private land, and do not know how many beavers there are or where they’re causing problems.
In Washington, despite a pilot program that helps relocate nuisance animals, beaver enthusiasts say not enough effort has gone into helping private landowners learn to live with them.
With the pilot program about to become permanent, objections are being raised that trappers are allowed to take relocated beavers.
And a major agricultural lobbying group remains opposed to legislation that would make it harder for farmers and private landowners to simply slaughter beaver populations where they find them.
All of this could be about to change — but will it?
Proposed legal protections
In Oregon and Washington, proposals to provide beavers with greater protections are gaining ground.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife managers say that making the state’s relocation program permanent could begin as soon as this year. They also point to an opportunity to add beavers as a “species of greater conservation need” in the agency’s statewide wildlife action plan.
In the Oregon Legislature this session, a bill to remove the “predator” status of beavers passed. Beaver supporters say provisions in the bill are small but important measures that can help prevent the indiscriminate killing of beavers and help landowners learn to live with North America’s largest rodent.
Oregon Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, — the bill’s primary sponsor and chair of the House Committee on Climate, Energy and Environment — says it’s going to take time for beavers in Oregon to be seen as friends instead of foes.
Her bill, she says, is the first step.
Removing its “predator” status will move management of beavers from the Oregon Department of Agriculture to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, where they can be overseen as wildlife instead of agricultural pests.
Landowners could still kill them on their own property, but most people would need a permit to do so.
After introducing the bill — and before the walkout — Marsh worked with Republicans in her committee and agreed to amended language to gain more support. Under the amended bill, landowners with beavers causing damage that imminently threatens infrastructure or agricultural crops could bypass the permit, and owners of small forestland are exempt.
But everyone would have to report the beavers they kill to the state, giving ODFW an opportunity to estimate out how many beavers are in the state, understand where and how they’re causing problems and provide landowners with options other than killing them.
Marsh believes public support for beavers in Oregon is growing.
“We just heard increasing voices across the state for stepping up for beavers,” says Marsh. “We’re seeing beaver-affinity groups, and increasingly seeing landowners who are raving about the results” of allowing beavers to reclaim portions of their property.
Marsh admits beavers can quickly damage property if they’re not properly directed.
“When you know how to work with them, there’s a tremendous capacity to store water and to keep people safe during wildfires,” she says.
Broad support for beavers
In committee hearings, many people testified in support of Marsh’s bill. In the Senate Natural Resources Committee, with the added amendments, only one person out of 48 people testified against it.
Marsh is particularly compelled by on-the-ground stories from people who decided to work with beavers on their property instead of trying to get rid of them.
Among them: Kaitlin Lovell, owner of a 20-acre farm near Colton, Ore., who testified before the Senate committee on May 10.
Lovell says when she decided to encourage beavers to take over about five acres of her land, she was expecting some of the ecological improvements that resulted.
“What we didn’t expect was the economic benefits,” she told the committee.
Lovell testified that her drinking well no longer goes dry. Her primary pasture stays green much later, allowing her to feed stock animals late into the summer without having to supplement their pasture with hay.
And when she evacuated her land in 2020 when the Riverside Fire ranged five miles away, she went to her beaver pond to take a picture of her farm that was threatened by wildfire. She said trees were breaking on her property from the 70 mph winds, and the sky was orange from the nearby blaze.
“In the beaver ponds, it was as if somebody put a glass dome over the ponds,” she said. “It was 10 degrees colder, and it was still. There was no wind. The trees were barely registering, and in that moment, I realized that there’s a lot more happening in these beaver ponds, especially during wildfires, than we’ve even begun to investigate.”
Lovell says the livestock they left behind in the haste of evacuation found refuge there. And the wildland firefighters who used the farm as the entryway to fight the fire identified the ponds as a backup water supply.
“That’s the climate resilience that we really didn’t see and anticipate,” she said.
Farmers: “Not so fast”
Despite growing support for beavers, and compromises made in Marsh’s HB 3464A, the Oregon Farm Bureau remains opposed to it.
Lauren Poor, the farm bureau’s vice president of government and legal affairs, told the Senate committee the bill would create an unnecessary and complicated system of managing beavers for private agricultural land owners, who can now kill beavers without a permit, and without reporting it.
Poor said the bill doesn’t require permits for small forestland owners, but farmers with beaver problems must be facing an imminent threat to infrastructure or crops to bypass the permit system.
Her testimony was the lone voice of opposition to the amended bill.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife took a neutral stance.
Brian Wolfer, acting wildlife division administrator for ODFW, says he’s explained to thousands of landowners who have problems with other furbearers that kill permits are really a short-term solution.
“When wildlife is on someone’s property, there are conditions that are favorable to them,” he says.
Removing one animal does not remove whatever is attracting the animal, so he works to educate landowners about coexistence strategies.
Jakob Shockey has spent years educating landowners across Oregon about how to coexist with beavers.
Shockey is executive director of the Jacksonville, Ore.-based nonprofit Project Beaver (formerly The Beaver Coalition) and owner of the wildlife control business Beaver State Wildlife Solutions.
“I’ve managed to make a full-time job out of helping the monkeys outsmart the rodents,” Shockey told the House Committee on Climate, Energy and Environment in March.
Shockey told the committee about tools he uses to help growers and other landowners benefit from beavers without the damage that comes with them.
He says pond levelers work like the drain in a bathtub that can be set at any level to prevent the flooding of crops; electric fences have been highly successful at keeping beavers away from orchards; and methods to cage off irrigation culverts prevent them from getting blocked.
“We can come up with some pretty crafty things. Most beaver conflicts you can find a solution for,” says Shockey.
Changing the “predatory” status of beavers would also remove language that labels them as agricultural pests, says Shockey.
“A lot of folks feel like, if they have a pest species on their land, in order to be good stewards of that land they have to get rid of that pest species,” he says, adding that the label sends a signal to landowners that isn’t helpful. “Most folks I end up working with didn’t have any idea that another solution was available.”
Shockey says that landowners who get caught in the endless treadmill of trapping beavers to get rid of them instead of finding a permanent solution to live with them end up impacting neighbors who would benefit from them, too.
“Beavers are territorial, and they mate for life. If you remove one, another family will move in, so you’re going to be depopulating the surrounding region of beavers,” he explains.
Shockey believes the top priority in beaver management should be helping people learn to live with them in the places they choose to repopulate.
“The fact that in the House they were able to work together and get bipartisan support [for HB 3464A], I was just tickled. It feels like the bill we’ve all been hoping for for the last decade.”
Shockey hopes the Oregon Senate can meet and vote on the bill before this year’s legislative session ends.
Washington’s 69,000 beavers
In Washington, the legislature recognized the vast ecological benefits of beavers more than a decade ago, and outlined their benefits in a 2012 law that directed the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to authorize beaver relocation and work in partnership with agencies, tribes and nonprofit groups.
The program was expanded in 2017.
“I think the habitat division [of WDFW] is quite aware of the ecosystem benefits of beavers, and as far as I know they are moving ahead and working with others to help them,” says Washington Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Melanie Rowland.
But, Rowland notes, the beaver’s status as an unclassified species still allows unlimited trapping for five months of the year.
And while on paper WDFW is supposed to encourage landowners to coexist with beavers, she’s not sure how far that goes in practice.
Last year, Rowland asked Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife staff for a briefing on its beaver management. Her main goals were to find ways to support landowners with nonlethal solutions when they have a problem beaver, and to evaluate the impacts of trapping on the state’s relocation program.
“You spend all this time and money and energy relocating a beaver—which is not an easy thing—and then the law says anybody who wants to can go out and kill that beaver. That is the first thing that should go,” she says. “Beavers that have been relocated shouldn’t be trapped.”
But her idea for a temporary moratorium on trapping received significant pushback—some of it from fellow commissioners.
During a December 2022 briefing, WDFW Wildlife Program Director Eric Gardner said that an estimated 69,000 beavers live in Washington, where they’re classified as furbearers.
He said about 500 to 700 trapping licenses for beavers are sold annually, but only about 110 license holders report trapping beavers.
Gardner outlined the harvest of beavers since 1984, which reached a peak of about 10,000 beavers trapped in 1986.
He said the rates of trapping fluctuated almost solely due to the price in pelts until a decline began in 2000, when body-gripping traps were banned in Washington.
In 2021, 714 beavers were taken by trappers in Washington.
Adding in the number of beavers killed by wildlife control operators or special trapping permits for problem animals, a total of 1,782 beavers were taken that year, said Gardner.
Five months after the briefing, Rowland says she believes the way beavers are managed in Washington is inconsistent, with different provisions for the animal as furbearers, as nuisance animals and for conservation purposes.
Given the importance of beavers to the ecosystem, she’d like to see more protections in place, especially for beavers that are relocated.
“It’s too long. This has been known and stated by the legislature since 2012, and we still have not changed anything about the trapping of beavers,” she says.
Rowland sees several avenues to help strengthen beaver policies, including in the next update to the state Game Management Plan, and a proposed Commission Conservation Policy that would point to the conservation of Washington’s biodiversity as WDFW’s top priority. It states, “This responsibility is becoming increasingly difficult with the amplified effects of climate change, growing human population and development, resulting in fragmented or lost habitat, invasive species and increasing disease.”
Rowland says that beavers can be key to conserving biodiversity in riparian habitats, but that state policies have changed at a “glacial” pace.
“There’s no question there’s lots of activity and recognition of the habitat value of having beavers,” she says. “In terms of moving people—the hunters and trappers and landowners that just think of beavers as vermin, nuisances or pelts—I have no idea if that’s changing.”
To Shockey, the public’s perception of beavers changes one landowner at a time. He says even though Oregon is still working to legally change the status of beavers, he thinks the Beaver State is well positioned to lead the Northern Hemisphere in developing a healthier relationship with nature’s greatest engineers.
With help from agencies and Washington organizations, Project Beaver developed a manual for best management practices to help people coexist with them, which people in Europe are looking to adopt, he says.
Once people stop fighting with beavers and start working with them, says Shockey, they’re sold.
K.C. Mehaffey has been writing about the environment from her home in Twisp, Washington for nearly 40 years. She writes about fish—especially Columbia Basin salmon—for NewsData, as writer and editor of the monthly NW Fishletter. This story was published in partnership with Gorge Rebuild-It Center (Hood River) as part of the Earth Day Oregon initiative. Columbia Insight, based in Hood River, Oregon, is nonprofit news site focused on environmental issues of the Columbia River Basin.