Tuesday, May 4, 2021: Beaver Relocations

I spoke with Molly Alves yesterday about beaver relocation programs. Molly is a wildlife biologist in the Natural Resources Department of the Tulalip Tribes in Tulalip, Washington, and heads up their beaver relocation program. The Tulalip Tribes run one of the biggest relocation program in the country, operating on three watersheds. The beavers are being relocated to portions of their historical range for natural recolonization.

Washington State is a little different than Illinois in that the reason beavers are desirable is because the wetlands they create are excellent habitats for salmon. Beavers are being used in the state as a river/water restoration tool. (For Illinois, our “in” might be the prevention of flooding in flood-prone areas such as Peoria; or the prevention of fertilizer runoff into the Illinois River, which feeds into the Mississippi River, which is causing a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.) So a lot of the funding they receive and support they get is for restoring the salmon population. It used to be illegal in Western Washington to relocate beavers (likewise, it is very difficult in Illinois), so starting in 2014, the project started relocating beavers under the sovereign rights of the tribes. The law was amended in 2017 to allow for relocations.

Molly walked me through the broad outlines of what it takes to run a successful beaver relocation program. “Success” is a relative term; the program’s success rate is about 35% although they have developed best practices that increase the success rate and are now training other groups along the west coast. For a small scale program, you need a husbandry facility in order to house the beavers until the whole family unit is captured. They use a fish hatchery. It works because typically beaver relocation season runs counter to fish hatching season. But a a fenced-in area with kiddie pools and dog crates could also be used. (I looked it up; we do have fish hatcheries in Illinois.) Success rates increase when the whole family is captured; beavers are social animals and may leave the selected site if they don’t have company. In fact, like other successful programs, the Tulalip Tribes program run a beaver where they sex the beavers and then pair them up. Relocation groups use suitcase-style Hancock traps that are carefully set to prevent accidental drowning. They put transmitters on the traps that send a text when they are triggered, so the beavers don’t have to spend too long in the traps.

Where are the beavers going? They have a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, with whom they do co-restoration of waterways. A private landowner can also apply to be a recipient of beavers if they have an appropriate habitat that is unoccupied by beavers and there is no conflict potential with the neighbors. Surrounding landowners must sign a waiver to allow this. They use small scale beaver dam analogues (human built structures that mimic beaver dams, slow down the water, and give the beavers something to build upon) to hold water at proposed relocation sites to beef up habitat.

There is a science to picking the best potential habitats for relocations. The Tulalip Tribes program uses a tool called the Beaver Intrinsic Potential, which looks at stream segments and determines where there should be beavers. They do site visits to see why the sites aren’t occupied, and they use a site scorecard for ranking each habitat (food, water, etc.).

Molly said that they have seen a big shift in public perception about beavers as the program has been successful in improving water quality and salmon habitats, with people now opting for trap and relocate instead of trap and kill “nuisance” beavers. Her program ended up partnering with the “nuisance” animal control community, who get paid to remove the beavers and then donate them to the program.

This is lots of food for thought as we go about the process of changing the culture here in Illinois. Meanwhile, you can read more about Molly Alves and the Tulalip Tribes program in this article:

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