You probably didn’t hear about Oregon House Bills 2843 and 2844. The companion pieces of legislation didn’t receive much national media attention, and they weren’t advanced in committee this year. But the bills would have all but banned beaver trapping in Oregon, and we’ve been told they’ll be back within the next two years.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Democratic Representative Pam Marsh, was noncommittal when asked whether she would introduce the bills in the future. But Derek Broman, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) Carnivore-Furbearer Coordinator, doesn’t have any doubts.
“It's very likely they could return at the next full session,” he told MeatEater. “These beaver topics likely only get more attention.”
As an organization, the ODFW has taken a neutral stance on these bills, but the beaver issue was controversial in Oregon well before the proposed legislation.
“Both of these are rooted in a pretty rich history of poo hitting the fan,” he said. “Trapping closure requests received enormous attention at two ODFW Commission meetings in 2020 with the latter reviewing a petition to close beaver trapping on federal lands.”
Despite public statements from the petition's proponents, Broman believes that for some, banning beaver trapping isn’t really about protecting river ecosystems or rehabilitating salmon habitat. Those issues, he says, are “red herrings” designed to hide a simple “anti-trapping movement.”
“It’s pretty obvious when a lot of the parties just can’t sustain a conversation with biologists about limiting factors,” he said. “They shut off because we’re not talking about how we’re going to shut down trapping.”
Not all outdoor enthusiasts have opposed the measures. Trout Unlimited threw their weight behind the beaver trapping ban, and the Oregon Salmon Commission pointed out that beaver dams promote good salmon habitat.
It’s true that beavers create the pools necessary for many fish species to thrive, and Broman said there is an “enormous value to beaver.” “Any biologist will acknowledge that having beaver dams on the landscape is advantageous to a large suit of species,” he said.
The question, of course, is whether banning beaver trapping in Oregon would do anything to promote that habitat.
What’s in These Bills? The bills are relatively simple. HB 2843 would ban taking a beaver on all federally managed public land, waters, and water storage facilities. Trappers are already required to obtain a license to work on public land, but this bill would eliminate that option.
HB 2844 would change the classification of beavers on private land from “rodents” to “furbearers.” As “rodents,” beavers can be killed or removed on private land by any legal means, and the state does not require landowners to obtain permits or permission.
Under HB 2844, private landowners would be required to obtain a special permit from the state to kill a beaver, but the bill does not include a process by which this application process can be expedited. In addition, before being approved for a permit, the landowner must make “reasonable attempts” to relocate the beaver “in consultation with” ODFW before using lethal means. Finally, individuals must report when they’ve taken a beaver, and failure to report a take would make them ineligible to receive a permit in the future.
The bills may not ban beaver trapping outright, but they come close. Federal agencies control 53% of Oregon’s land mass while state and local governments control only 3%, so HB 2843 eliminates most public land beaver trapping. On private land, HB 2844 effectively bans recreational beaver trapping and makes even nuisance trapping much more difficult.
What Are the Two Sides Saying? Rather than highlighting animal cruelty or population decline, supporters of beaver trapping closures argue that beavers must be protected to preserve the ecological benefits the species offers.
“Few, if any, wildlife species have such a profound influence on landscape form as well as through the processes they set in motion that create and support entire biotic communities,” said Kelly Peterson, the Senior State Director for the Oregon chapter of the Humane Society. “When protections are afforded to beaver, they in turn directly increase and enhance wetlands and biological diversity.”
In written committee testimony, the Oregon chapter of Trout Unlimited pointed out that beavers promote the kind of habitat that trout love.
“Discontinuing trapping of beavers on federally managed public lands will allow natural restoration of large blocks of land and watersheds where there is limited infrastructure,” said chapter chairman Mark Rogers.
Broman readily acknowledged that beaver dams do have a positive impact on fish species, especially Coho salmon. Fish use the pools formed by dams, and with enough time, beavers can turn a riparian area into a bona fide wetland in which many different species can thrive.
But it’s unlikely that banning beaver trapping will have the kind of impact the bills’ supporters hope. Broman described the beaver take as “quite minimal” and said that little empirical data exists describing the species’ population trajectory in the state.
“Any way you dice it, the biology shows that the harvest is a non-impact. A lack of habitat and our robust apex predators are greater limiting factors,” he said.
Trapping ban supporters make even larger claims. In multiple written testimonies, animal rights and conservation groups argue that beavers also help stop forest fires and slow climate change.
Peterson mentions climate change in her statement, and a coalition of environmentalist groups assert that ending beaver trapping will lead to “increased wildfire resilience” and promote “carbon capture and storage that helps remove carbon from the atmosphere.”
Broman characterizes these statements as “moving the goalposts.” Rather than argue for bans on a scientific basis, anti-trapping groups want to believe that banning beaver trapping is a panacea for a wide range of data-free results.
“Some of these things are getting so grand, and there’s no data whatsoever,” he said. “It’s smart. It’s changing the conversation from, ‘Is trapping having a population impact?’ and moving the goalposts to a place with no empirical data.”
Hunting, trapping, and agricultural groups came out in full force against each of the proposed policies. Landowners argued that the bills would prohibit them from saving their harvest from a single problem beaver, which can take down numerous valuable trees in a single night.
Coalitions of outdoor groups including Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Congressional Sportsman Foundation, and the Oregon Hunters Association argued that the bills are not grounded in science, do not allow for agility in management, upend ODFW’s existing workgroup process, and represents another attack on trapping rights.
ODFW had already formed a workgroup to address issues related to beaver management, but animal rights groups accused them of slow-walking the process. So, rather than allowing biologists to dictate beaver policy based on science, anti-trappers turned to the legislature to push their agenda, according to the bills’ opponents.
“In truth, this bill is also simply another attack on trapping in the state of Oregon,” they said.
What Now? Trapping rights have been at the top of mind since New Mexico passed a ban on all public-land trapping earlier this year. That bill passed in opposition to many conservation groups and despite new regulations governing trapping methods and equipment.
Just like in Oregon, New Mexico animal rights groups worked through the legislature to accomplish their goals rather than via science-based policies recommended by state biologists.
Broman told us that what happened in New Mexico has alerted other Western state wildlife agencies to the threat of animal rights groups working through friendly legislatures. “It’s got a lot of states aware, and our message was to avoid a death by a million cuts,” he said.
“People aren’t saying, ‘We’re going to shut down trapping.’ But they try to make it so cumbersome that it’s naturally inaccessible,” Broman continued. “That’s the tactic that the trapping, furbearing world is seeing. The fear is that they’ll take it to the next level. After they wipe out trapping, they’ll switch to hunting, like they did in California when they went after bear hunting.”
Broman stressed that landowners, hunters, and trappers aren’t motivated by a desire to wipe out beavers and other furbearers. When surveyed, Oregon landowners say that beavers usually don’t cause problems, and these farmers and ranchers aren’t seeking to eradicate beavers from the landscape. They just want the freedom to remove problem beavers if they pose a serious financial or safety risk.
Trappers, like all sportspeople, don’t want beavers eradicated, either. They want healthy, stable populations from which they can harvest, and they want the freedom to remove nuisance beavers if they work in that industry.
The outdoor community in Oregon will likely have a few years before they’re forced to address this issue. Oregon holds a short legislative session in 2022, and legislators are only allowed to introduce two bills. A spokesperson for Rep. Marsh told us she is “still evaluating future legislative strategies,” but it seems unlikely she’ll use her bill quota for HB 2843 and HB 2844.
But while these bills didn’t make it out of committee this year, the legislation could provide the blueprint and rationale for similar anti-trapping bills in other states. In Oregon, a beaver trapping ban will likely be on the table in 2023, and it may be one of many introduced around the country.