Group asks Biden to ban beaver trapping on federal land

Feb. 28—A coalition whose members include a Baker City resident is calling on President Joe Biden to issue an executive order banning trapping and hunting of beavers on public land managed by federal agencies.

The group, which sent a letter to the White House on Monday, Feb. 27, contends that killing beavers — most are trapped rather than hunted — is preventing beavers from expanding their populations.

They advocate for the federal government to help boost beaver numbers to take advantage of the benefits of their dams. Chief among those is storing water, both in ponds and wetlands, which can help ease the harmful effects of drought and climate change on a variety of activities, including farming and ranching, said Suzanne Fouty, a retired U.S. Forest Service hydrologist who lives in Baker City.

"Our public lands are the best place to begin landscape-scale stream, wetland and riparian recovery needed to help tackle the challenges our communities face," Fouty said.

Fouty is one of two co-signers of the letter to Biden, along with Adam Bronstein, Oregon and Nevada director for the Western Watersheds Project.

"This executive order would provide clear direction and is needed because state wildlife agencies are too narrowly focused on the interest of hunters and trappers, leading to their continued failure to protect this critical keystone species," Bronstein said.

More than 250 other people, including college professors and members of environmental groups, also added their names to the letter.

The group believes that an executive order banning beaver trapping and hunting on federally managed public land would build on the goals the Biden administration has with the Inflation Reduction Act and related executive orders designed to curb the effects of climate change.

"The recent passage of the Inflation Reducation Act and the signing of climate-targeted executive orders by the Biden administration has created the opportunities to implement key nature-based solutions that will help address the climate and biodiversity crises," said Fouty, who has a doctorate.

The executive order the group is requesting from Biden would not affect beaver trapping on other public lands, such as those managed by a state. Nor would it apply to private property, where landowners sometimes trap beaver to prevent the animals from damaging irrigation ditches and other structures.

Beavers were once plentiful in Oregon — not for nothing is this is the Beaver State — but the animals, valued for their pelts, were nearly eradicated from the state during the 19th century.

The idea that returning beavers to some of their previous habitats could be beneficial, particularly in boosting water supplies, is not a recent notion.

Louis L. Gilliam, in a thesis he wrote as part of his bachelor of science degree requirements at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University in 1942, wrote that the state's first protection for beavers was in 1893, when trapping was banned in Baker and Malheur counties, except in cases where the animals were damaging property.

In 1899 the Oregon Legislature banned beaver trapping statewide for 20 years, Gilliam wrote in his thesis. The state relaxed that ban in 1917 and 1918 to allow beaver trapping in Benton and Marion counties, where the animals were causing problems on farmland.

The state allowed beaver trapping to resume statewide in 1923, Gilliam wrote.

He also described in his thesis efforts to replenish beaver populations, including releasing 215 beavers in the Whitman National Forest and five beavers in the Wallowa National Forest in 1936.

(The two forests were combined into the Wallowa-Whitman in the early 1950s.)

Beaver harvest in Oregon

According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), trappers and hunters (trappers accounting for a large majority) killed 51,295 beavers in Oregon from 2000 to 2020.

Most of those were taken in 18 counties west of the Cascades — 41,240, or 80.4% of the total.

The total beaver harvest in Baker County during that period was 1,103, second-highest among the 18 counties east of the Cascades, behind only Malheur County, with a 20-year harvest of 1,871 beavers.

The harvest rate has declined, both statewide and in Baker County, over the two decades.

The annual statewide beaver harvest averaged 3,054 animals for the first decade, dropping to 2,075 per year for the second decade.

In Baker County, the annual average was 71 for the first decade, 2000-10, declining to 47 per year in the second decade.