Advocates urge Biden to protect beavers, Oregon’s state animal

A group of scientists, nonprofit organizations and advocates from Oregon and around the country have asked President Joe Biden to issue an executive order protecting beavers on federal public lands.

Their letter was sent to the White House on Monday, signed by over 200 scientists, wildlife experts and activists. It says beavers are important for fighting climate change, biodiversity loss and water shortages.

Oregon’s state animal, beavers were once common here and across the continent. Scientists estimate that there were as many as 200 million beavers in North America before colonization. Widespread trapping in the 19th century brought beavers to the brink of extinction in many areas, and though they have recovered somewhat, current estimates are around 15 million, a reduction of more than 90%. 

Beavers are natural engineers. They build dams, slowing down and spreading water that would otherwise run off – and that makes them a natural ally for Biden’s climate agenda, said Suzanne Fouty, a retired U.S. Forest Service hydrologist who co-authored the letter. 

“It turns out that wetlands, which beavers are capable of creating very effectively, are a tremendous carbon storage zone,” she told the Capital Chronicle.

Wetland soil can store up to 10 times more carbon than the same amount of forest soil, and up to 35 times more than grassland, the letter said. Carbon in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is the primary driver of climate change, and scientists say we have to both reduce our emissions and pull more carbon out of the atmosphere to stabilize the climate. 

Beyond storing carbon, wetlands created and maintained by beavers have been shown to improve water quality, improve and expand fish and wildlife habitat and act as natural firebreaks during wildfires. They also help to mitigate the effects of drought like the one that’s affected the West for several years. 

The letter proposes an executive order with three parts: a near-total ban on beaver trapping on federal public land, a directive to land management agencies to prioritize beaver conservation and funding to federal agencies to expand beaver numbers. It said money should be allocated to the U.S. Forest Service, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management along with the Civilian Climate Corps, a climate-focused jobs program that was cut from the Inflation Reduction Act to pass the Senate in 2021.

Until now, beaver management has been left mostly to state wildlife agencies, but the letter’s authors claim that these agencies, funded primarily by hunting, trapping and fishing licenses, are more beholden to hunters and trappers than to the public or the wildlife. The letter mentions Oregon as an example of a state which has been unable to adequately protect beavers, noting that attempts at regulation have failed in both the state Legislature and Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission in the last three years.

“Beaver hunting and trapping is open in most states right now,” Adam Bronstein, Director for Oregon and Nevada at the Western Watersheds Project, told the Capital Chronicle. “In a lot of cases, there are no quotas and no seasons.” This means that managers have no way to set sustainable limits on trapping, and scientists have no reliable count of how many beavers are being taken off of public lands.

Many of the co-signers of the letter are Oregonians and leaders of Oregon-based nonprofit organizations, including representatives of several local Audubon societies, the Urban Greenspaces Institute and WaterWatch of Oregon. Professors, retired and active, from both Oregon State University and University of Oregon, joined the effort. Several fishing advocates signed the letter as well, including David Moskowitz from the Conservation Angler and Bob Rees of Northwest Guides and Anglers Association, highlighting the value that beavers can provide to healthy fish habitat.

Bronstein points out that beaver trapping is only one use that actively competes with the other services that wetlands with beavers can provide. In Oregon, fewer than 200 people actively trap and hunt beavers to sell their fur or because some landowners consider them pests. Others hunt them recreationally. “Public lands belong to all Americans, and wildlife is in our collective trust,” says Bronstein. “We want our public lands to provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people.” 

Ian Rose is a freelance science and nature writer based in Corvallis, Oregon. His work has recently appeared in Scientific American, Hakai Magazine and Civil Eats, centering on climate change and environmental issues in the American West.

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By Ian Rose - Oregon Capital Chronicle