bioGraphic: In western Washington, the Tulalip Tribes bet big on beavers

Biologists Molly Alves and David Bailey haul a trapped beaver out of a stream that flows through a North Seattle suburb.

Biologists Molly Alves and David Bailey haul a trapped beaver out of a stream that flows through a North Seattle suburb.

Story by Ben Goldfarb

Photographs and video by Morgan Heim

It’s before dawn on a late August morning, the Washington sky blanched with smoke drifting from distant wildfires, and Molly Alves and David Bailey have caught a beaver.

The two biologists haul the ornery package of fat and fur, still penned into the trap that closed around him overnight like a giant clam, up the banks of a meandering, tea-colored stream. The drainage is cluttered with Himalayan blackberry and Japanese knotweed, whose rhubarb-like stems the beaver has commandeered to build his lodge—a native mammal thriving amidst invasive plants. The beaver, his lustrous fur shimmering in the pale light, flaps his tail and gnaws at the trap with burnt-orange incisors. His forepaws grasp the wire mesh, a prisoner straining against his cell walls.

“That is a very feisty sub-adult,” Bailey grunts as he and Alves lug the beaver toward the road. “When they’re trying to nom on the trap like that, it means they’re pretty stressed.”

Although not Indigenous themselves, Alves and Bailey relocate beavers under the auspices of the Tulalip Tribes, a sovereign nation with nearly 5,000 members. This week they’ve set their traps in the Puget Sound suburb of Marysville—half an hour north of Seattle if you leave before daybreak, an eternity at rush hour. Across the street from the Marysville Public Library waits their Silverado pickup, its right two wheels perched on the curb. Alves and Bailey, foreheads damp with sweat, set the beaver down and lower the tailgate. Morning traffic roars past, drivers craning their necks.

An elderly pedestrian wanders toward us, snatching up candy wrappers and soda cans with a long-handled trash picker. Ah, I think, a good Samaritan, out for a spot of neighborhood cleanup. If anyone would appreciate local fauna, it’s this guy. I sidle up and point out the beaver, now being boosted into the truck.

The man gazes at me, his eyes a milky blue. “What are you going to do with him?”

Relocate him, I reply.

The man smiles. “Why don’t you just shoot the son of a bitch?”

I am momentarily flabbergasted. I sputter something about transferring the beavers to nearby public lands where they can build dams, create wetlands, and do some ecological good. He cuts me off.

“Good?” he laughs. “What good do they do? They’re always clogging up culverts and being a pain in the ass. You’re lucky you got to him before I did.” Before I can craft a response, he snaps up a crushed water bottle and strolls off.

The sentiment that Castor canadensis is little more than a tree-felling, water-stealing, property-flooding pest is a common one. In 2017, trappers in Washington State killed 1,700 “nuisance” beavers, nearly 20 times more than were relocated alive. In neighboring Oregon, the herbivorous rodents are classified as predators, logic and biology notwithstanding. California considers them a “detrimental species.” Last year alone, the U.S. Department of Agriculture eliminated more than 23,000 conflict-causing beavers nationwide.

Running countercurrent to this carnage is another trend: the rise of the Beaver Believer. Across North America, many scientists and land managers are discovering that, far from being forces of destruction, beavers can serve as agents of water conservation, habitat creation, and stream restoration. In Maryland, ecologists are promoting beaver-built wetlands to filter out agricultural pollutants and improve water quality in Chesapeake Bay. In North Carolina, biologists are building beaver-like dams to enhance wet meadows for endangered butterflies. In England, conservationists have reintroduced the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) in hopes that their pond complexes will attenuate destructive floods. And in Washington, where a century of habitat loss has devastated salmon, the Tulalip Tribes are strategically dispatching beavers to support the fish so integral to their history and culture.

Back at the truck, I recount my exchange with the beaver-abhorring walker. Alves laughs. She has heard such slander before, and has a rebuttal at the ready.

“I would have asked him if he likes fresh water and salmon.”

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