Editor’s note: Anna Kolosky is a senior at the University of Vermont majoring in English with minors in biology and Reporting and Documentary Storytelling. She has been interning with Protect Our Wildlife VT this summer with a focus on beaver conflict management.
As a student who has an interest in environmental justice, I wanted to learn more about beaver management in Vermont, given that they are a keystone species that are crucial to the health of many types of wildlife.
After viewing a June 2020 beaver webinar presented by Vermont Fish & Wildlife, I was left with outstanding questions about some of the information presented. Vermont Fish & Wildlife referred to Massachusetts as a cautionary example of what happens when a state bans or severely restricts trapping. After researching their information, I was surprised to find much of it to be unfounded. I found a pro-trapping agenda that seems to be based in advancing a political agenda and not in any way in the best interest of wildlife.
We can all agree that beavers are a keystone species that are crucial to the health of many types of wildlife. Beaver-created wetlands serve as diverse ecosystems and habitats for threatened and endangered species. With our planet facing the very real effects of climate change, including drought, we should be protecting beavers, not trapping them for “recreation” and “tradition.” Beaver-created habitat reduces erosion, removes harmful pollutants, and moderates stream flow during times of flooding and drought. Tragically, these ecosystem engineers are trapped throughout Vermont in unlimited numbers. Trappers can’t claim they do it for money, since beaver pelts are worthless on the fur market.
In 1996, Massachusetts banned most forms of trapping, prohibiting the use of both steel-jawed and padded leghold traps, but still allowed the use of live cage traps. Conibear traps, a type of body-crushing “kill” trap, were restricted under the new law as well. They could only be used if the trapper had unsuccessfully tried to capture an animal for 15 days with a cage trap or if there was an imminent threat to public health or infrastructure at which point a permit would be issued. This restriction resulted in tremendous wins for Massachusetts wildlife. Bobcats, beavers, foxes, and other animals, including dogs and cats, no longer suffer in body gripping traps all in the name of “tradition.”
Despite this, Vermont Fish & Wildlife claims that banning trapping resulted in unmanaged beaver populations causing costly damage to multiple towns. But according to MassWildlife, the beaver population was actually increasing prior to the 1996 trapping ban. Populations grew from 12,000 in 1993 to 22,635 in 1994 revealing that trapping did not effectively “manage” beaver numbers statewide before the ban. Also, the beavers that were trapped prior to the ban were likely not even beavers who were causing damage. Those beavers were likely contributing so much to ecosystems and were trapped for no good reason. Additionally, research conducted on the Quabbin Reservation in Massachusetts found that when beavers are not trapped and killed, their populations will grow rapidly in size before declining and stabilizing at a level approximately 23% of its peak. Thus, beaver populations are self-regulating and do not need to be trapped in order to maintain their population numbers. There is also science that suggests that trapped/exploited populations may actually have an increase in breeding.
Twenty years ago, the town of Billerica, Massachusetts, addressed beaver concerns by employing Beaver Solution to develop and implement non-lethal, humane, long-lasting, and cost-effective plans. As of 2019, the town has a total of 55 beaver management sites; 43 managed with humane flow devices and 12 managed by trapping. Non-lethal management has allowed 38 beaver colonies to create over 380 acres of wetland area and has subsequently provided Billerica with approximately $2 million in ecological services annually. There are easy ways to prevent other types of beaver damage, such as the felling of trees, by wrapping the base of trees with wire mesh or painting them with a gritty paint mixture.
In addition to Billerica’s efforts, the town of Templeton, Massachusetts, implemented five flow devices that have an annualized cost of $163.25 distributed over a 20-year life space. Templeton’s animal inspector has found that the, “the flow devices are a very cost-effective way for towns to deal with beavers,” “they save towns a lot of money,” and “they are very effective in keeping down the cost for the DPW.” By correctly installing non-lethal methods of management, living alongside beavers has proven to be ecologically and economically beneficial.
So why is Vermont killing unproblematic beavers? Why is the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department painting an inaccurate picture of what happened in Massachusetts when they restricted trapping? Trapping to solve a specific threat to infrastructure – as a last result – is one thing, but recreational trapping has no place in a state that prides itself on embracing environmentally friendly policies. I urge Vermont Fish & Wildlife to update their information as it relates to the Massachusetts trapping “ban” and provide the public with current, thorough information, not a trapping-biased agenda.