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Beavers Could Be A Key Species For Endangered Salmon Recovery In Oregon

A beaver at Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.
A beaver at Lily Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Recent guidance from the federal government is, for the first time, promoting the importance of beavers in the recovery of endangered salmon and steelhead in Oregon rivers.

A recently released biological opinion is encouraging landowners to use non-lethal means of dealing with beavers on private property.

“We know that they can provide important benefits that help support recovery of these fish that a lot of people are working toward,” says Michael Milstein, a spokesperson with the National Marine Fisheries Service. “But at the same time, it’s clear that they can cause conflict.”

The study advocates for private landowners to prioritize management tools like fencing when beavers dam culverts. It also asks that beavers be relocated rather than killed, and it sets an average limit of 13 removals of beaver sites per year across the state.

The biological opinion was prompted by a 2017 legal threat from environmental groups including the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Environmental Law Center over the killing of beavers and their role in creating fish habitat.

Beaver dams increase habitat for juvenile salmon and steelhead and they help remove sediment from water those fish rely on. The guidance applies to vulnerable fish species listed under the Endangered Species Act across the Northwest from the Coquille and Willamette Rivers in western Oregon, north to the Columbia River and east to the Snake River.

Still, the fisheries opinion doesn’t go as far as environmental groups hoped.

“[National Marine Fisheries Service] acknowledges in this opinion that Pacific Northwest salmon and steelhead evolved with beaver dams and adapted to their presence, yet, in the same document turns a blind eye to a federal agency killing 400 or more beavers a year in the Beaver State,” wrote Andrew Hawley with the Western Environmental Law Center in response to the new guidance.

The biological opinion was enacted by the National Marine Fisheries Service on June 8. The agency's Michael Milstein says this opinion marks the first time beavers have been used as a tool for endangered salmon and steelhead recovery in Oregon.

“Beavers can create this sort of habitat that’s in short supply and is really limiting the recovery of these fish,” Milstein says. “If we can take advantage of that, at the same time as landowners have the tools they need, then it works for everyone.”

Copyright 2020 Jefferson Public Radio

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.