An environmentalist group plans to ask President Joe Biden to issue an executive order banning beaver trapping and hunting on all federal public land, according to a finalized draft of a letter sent out for signatures and obtained by MeatEater.
In the 10-page document, the Western Watersheds Project (WWP) claims that protecting beavers on all federally managed land in the U.S. will reduce the effects of climate change by creating new wetland areas, among a host of other environmental benefits.
“In response to protection, beavers and their dams would begin expanding in numbers, setting in motion processes that would lead to the restoration of hundreds of thousands of miles of degraded streams and the creation of millions of hectares of new, nature-based carbon capture and storage (CCS) zones in the form of stream-corridor wetlands,” the letter states.
Biologists, trappers, and ecologists, however, warn that unilaterally banning beaver trapping and hunting would hamstring state agencies as they work to keep beaver populations healthy and mitigate conflict with residents and landowners. A nationwide, one-size-fits-all policy, they say, would bring a sledgehammer to a problem that requires a scalpel.
“Using a hamstring to deny the public the benefits of sound management in the name of climate change is criminal and a disservice to our knowledge of wildlife and our wildlife profession,” Rick Tischaefer, President of the North Dakota Fur Hunters & Trappers Association, told MeatEater.
Under the WWP’s plan, beaver trapping and hunting on federal land would only be permitted to Native Americans, scientists conducting “bona fide scientific research,” and wildlife biologists who use live traps to relocate beavers for “ecosystem management.” All other forms of trapping, including nuisance trapping and hunting, would be prohibited.
Managing beavers to live peacefully alongside humans requires a complex, multi-tiered approach, according to Tischaefer. He believes the current system does exactly that.
“Professional trappers play a huge role in helping certified biologists achieve or maintain a balance within specific habitats,” he said. Regulated trapping is used to cull the “harvestable surplus,” which could otherwise damage other natural resources and human infrastructure. “Using regulated trapping or hunting to manage the harvestable surplus can lead to longer term and usable habitats,” he said.
Removing a state’s ability to manage these populations would be an “alarming usurpation of the authority of state wildlife managers around the country,” said MeatEater’s Steve Rinella. “It's a joke to suggest that President Biden needs to step in and save the day for beavers when we already have dedicated local professionals acting as effective guardians of the resource.”
Steve offered his home state of Montana as an example. Beavers are managed across 7 distinct regions with closures in portions of 11 counties. This “nuanced approach” would be impossible under the WWP’s plan, and he believes their proposal uses climate change as a “cloak” to hide their underlying desire to get trappers off the landscape.
The environmental group doesn’t try to hide their skepticism that state agencies are capable of managing the species.
“The failure of the state wildlife agencies to protect beavers is puzzling until one realizes that their goal is to meet the desires of hunters and trappers who contribute to their funding via licenses and equipment purchases,” they say. “Clearly, the broader human and wild community can no longer afford the luxury of this narrow state wildlife focus. A new national approach to this ecosystem engineer is needed.”
Tischaefer believes after trying and failing for 14 years to ban beaver trapping in Oregon, the WWP is switching their focus to the national level because they’ll find a more receptive audience.
“I believe this effort to include all public lands was created by the same individuals who were denied their last ballot initiative in Oregon, and now submitted to the President because of his administration’s favoritism to these left-leaning ideals,” he said.
The WWP does not claim that beaver populations are struggling or on the decline. Instead, they justify their proposal by citing the benefits beavers offer to the environment. Beavers won’t only address the “climate crisis.” They’ll store groundwater, improve water quality, stop wildfires, and improve and expand wildlife and fish habitat.
The letter does not describe exactly where these benefits will be seen. The policy assumes that wherever beavers are, habitat will improve. Adam Bronstein, the Director for Oregon & Nevada Western Watersheds Project, told MeatEater that unless science says otherwise, it is impossible for a landscape to have too many beavers.
“Let wild nature do her thing. Populations are self-regulating. Beavers are preyed upon, food runs out, all of these things can regulate beavers,” he said.
But while beavers can and do change the landscape in ways many would consider positive, different regions require different management strategies.
The Alaskan tundra, for example, is seeing a huge influx of beavers as climate change allows for the growth of more shrubby vegetation, thaws streams, and shortens winters. Beavers are moving back into areas they once occupied, but they’re also colonizing some areas for the first time in recent history. Beavers have constructed over 10,000 beaver ponds over the last 70 years, and the number of beaver ponds doubled in most areas between about 2003 and 2017.
Dr. Ken Tape, an ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has been studying this phenomenon for nearly a decade, and his research has shown that these ponds are making changes to the tundra that can be seen from space.
“They’re changing everything. That’s what they do. They’re ecosystem engineers. It’s basically unrecognizable from what it was before. What beavers are doing in the tundra a human could not get a permit to do,” Tape told MeatEater.
Beavers are turning streams into wetlands, but those wetlands aren’t always welcome.
“Beaver ponds are hard to generalize about because they’re all so different,” Tape said. “Even in Alaska, the effects of a beaver dam on fish are going to depend on the location.”
If a beaver makes a dam in a slough, fish will still be able to migrate up and down that stream and the effects could be positive. But if the dam is right in the middle of the stream, it could impede fish migration and have an overall negative impact. Tape said that in Alaska, biologists are most concerned about how beaver dams will impact fish migration and water quality.
Beavers may also be exacerbating climate change in the Alaskan tundra. Tape told MeatEater about a paper currently under review that links beaver ponds with increased levels of methane emission. When beavers turn a stream into a wetland, the permafrost under that wetland begins to melt, which releases additional methane into the atmosphere.
Tape acknowledged that a beaver pond wetland may capture and store carbon, but this won’t happen on all federal public land.
“You talk about a scalpel…you remove the ability to discriminate between a good pond and a bad pond when you make a blanket ban like that,” he said. “They’re a great conservation tool, but that doesn’t mean you should do a blanket ban at the federal level on trapping and mitigation.”
Recreational trapping and hunting is among the many tools wildlife biologists in Alaska use to keep local populations manageable, according to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. Dr. Todd Brinkman, one of Tape’s colleagues at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who studies human-wildlife interactions, confirmed that beaver trapping “continues to be an effective wildlife management tool that helps to minimize the damage and conflict caused by beaver activity.”
The WWP’s letter does not mention the most recent research from Alaska, and Bronstein said MeatEater’s request for comment “put this on our radar.” In light of this apparent oversight, Bronstein said the WWP may consider adding an exception for Alaska, pending their review of the scientific literature.
Currently, the list of signatories on this draft letter has also not been finalized.
Bronstein argued that hunters and anglers should support a ban on beaver trapping based on the environmental benefits the animals provide. “As a hunter and fisher, I want to see riparian areas expand, so I can hunt more ducks. So there’s more deer, more grouse, more turkey,” he said. “This is a potential split in the hunting and trapping community, and these are conversations I look forward to having.”