A Rodent Will Save Us

Can buck-toothed rodents save Oregon?

We are talking about beavers and the answer is yes. There is no doubt that beavers can help humans survive in Oregon. But beavers can’t help us unless we help them survive and multiply. This will require winning a culture war. It’s worth the fight. If we lose this struggle, we stand to lose everything.

Does this sound hyperbolic? Think about water. Oregon has seen more and frequent droughts over the past 30 years. Our water supply will continue to decline but it will not disappear tomorrow. Still, we face a huge challenge. It’s about temperature. Whatever the cause, Oregon is getting hotter. Since we moved to the Green Springs in 1994, my family and I have watched the snow line— the point at which snow starts accumulating over the winter season — rise from about 3,500 feet, about halfway up Highway 66, to Hyatt Lake, which sits at 5,100 feet. That’s a lot of snowpack gone missing.

Now consider the fact that much of Oregon — the Rogue and Willamette Valleys in particular — depends on snowpack to survive the summers. Reservoirs help but snowpack holds more water than all of our reservoirs combined. Snowpack releases water gradually, replenishing reservoirs as they are drained for drinking water, showers and agriculture. Without snowpack, we are in deep trouble.

We can mitigate part of the shortage by piping irrigation ditches, converting croplands to drip systems and replacing lawns with drought tolerant plants. That will not be enough. We need to hold much more water at high elevations.

In 1700 this was not a problem. Something between 60 to 400 million beavers were busy across North America, building dams, filling ponds, trapping water that flowed gradually from mountain pools to valley wetlands. The Hudson’s Bay Company and other immigrant enterprises put an end to that. For the sake of felt top hats and vast fortunes, they launched a beaver genocide that largely succeeded. Today we are left with a “fur desert” and scattered survivors.

Industrial scale trapping is gone but the war on beavers continues across rural America. In ranching and farming communities, beavers are considered dangerous competitors. This attitude is institutionalized by agencies like Oregon Department of Agriculture, which classifies beavers as “predators.” According to Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife: “Private landowners or their agents may lethally remove beaver without a permit from ODFW.” You can also shoot or trap beavers for fun any day of the year.

Although man rural Oregonians despise the state critter that many of us find easy to love, all Oregonians share a fundamental value: We all worship water. If we can join hands to protect and encourage beavers, our furry friends will restore the natural hydrology of Oregon’s mountains and stretch our precious water supply.

Call this plan “B” for beaver restoration. There is no plan “A.” This fall I hope to help launch a beaver restoration campaign at Parsnip Lakes, an abandoned beaver habitat on the Green Springs. Look for more beaver news next month.