Kim Royar: There’s no silver bullet for beaver conservation, coexistence and management

This commentary was written by Kim Royar, who has served as a wildlife biologist and the furbearer project leader at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department for more than 40 years.

As a 40+ year veteran of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, I take exception to the Sept. 13 “Why are we killing the one animal that can increase wildlife habitat” commentary’s oversimplification of the department’s beaver conservation, coexistence and management efforts.

The department recognizes and publicly promotes beavers as ecosystem engineers and a keystone species. That is why we successfully reintroduced beavers to Vermont throughout the early 1900s and established a “beaver baffle” program 22 years ago that continues to this day. Our beaver baffle program works with landowners, business owners and road crews to protect valuable beaver-created wetlands by installing water control structures.

Just as important, our program also advances a culture of coexistence with wildlife.

Every year, the department engages Vermonters who are experiencing conflict with beavers in meaningful conversations about the importance — and challenges — of maintaining beavers across Vermont’s landscape. Our beaver baffle program fields an average of 400 inquires, conducts an average of 52 site visits, installs 15 to 20 water control structures, and takes part in numerous public presentations, trainings, and correspondences with landowners annually. Over the last 20 years, these efforts have led us to install over 320 culvert fences and baffles that have helped to maintain beaver colonies and wetlands while mitigating flooding and protecting an additional 3,600 acres of critical wetland habitats.

But while installing water control structures can often help solve flooding issues, maintain habitat, and foster important conversations in our communities, it is not a silver bullet in all cases of conflict with beavers.

Water control structures require regular maintenance and an indefinite commitment from affected landowners. They can also be expensive, making them inaccessible to some landowners and towns. And even with the full support of an affected landowner or town, water control structures are not effective in every case of conflict with beavers. Site conditions make each beaver conflict unique. Depending on water depth and velocity, topography, substrate, drainage area, and the persistence and abundance of the local beaver population, it may be challenging or even impossible to resolve some situations with beaver baffles alone.

This is why the department has relied for decades on regulated and ethical harvest to replace some of the natural predation by wolves and harvest by indigenous communities that influenced beaver numbers before European colonization.

Our current beaver trapping season assists in sustaining and coexisting with Vermont’s healthy and abundant beaver population by minimizing the need to take beavers as a “nuisance” in conflict situations. This goal is especially important because animals taken outside of the winter trapping season are often wasted, rather than utilized as a local source of food and clothing. 

Research shows that people tend to appreciate wildlife until conflicts arise. When the beaver floods a driveway, the bear breaks into the garbage, the skunk gets under a porch, or the raccoon gets into the chicken coop, it has been our experience that Vermonters can lose sight of wildlife’s role as a valuable part of our ecosystem.

That is why maximizing the ethical use of harvested beavers and minimizing the number of beavers killed out of season in defense of property is one of the best strategies available — alongside beaver baffles — to Vermonters for coexisting with a healthy beaver population over the long haul.

As with many issues today, the decisions around wildlife management are complex. Rest assured that the wildlife advocates at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department work tirelessly to ensure that wildlife populations, the ecosystem services they provide, and the habitats they depend on will thrive for the enjoyment of our children and grandchildren.

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