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Unusual alliance allows beaver relocation

Chompski, the relocated beaver, checks out Bodie Creek, the stream that might become its new home.
Chompski, the relocated beaver, checks out Bodie Creek, the stream that might become its new home.

Moving animal helps water tables

It took more than six years, several legislative struggles, a raft of sniggering jokes, and the unlikely alliance of a conservative Eastern Washington Republican and a progressive environmental group, but there’s a beaver on Bodie Creek.

State Rep. Joel Kretz’s idea for a more natural way to improve Eastern Washington aquifers is getting a trial run on his ranch outside Wauconda, Wash.

This month, the Lands Council of Spokane delivered him a “nuisance” beaver – or at least one that a landowner near Addy, Wash., considers a nuisance – as part of a beaver relocation project authorized by legislation earlier this year.

“We’re trying to recharge the groundwater,” Kretz said. “Any time you can retain water higher up in the watershed, it’s a good thing.”

Amanda Parrish, the watershed program director for the Lands Council, said the beaver was trapped the previous weekend, kept briefly in Spokane and driven to Kretz’s ranch a few days later. Although beavers are social animals that usually live with their families, the owner of the property who called the Lands Council to remove it said it had been solitary for more than a year. He was worried the beaver would damage his retention pond.

Parrish dubbed the beaver Chompski, a gender-neutral name because the sex of a beaver is hard to determine without an extensive exam.

Kretz said he’s holding off naming it: “You don’t want to get too attached until they get established.”

The Republican from Northeastern Washington’s 7th District first proposed a system in 2006 to relocate the toothy rodents from places where they were creating a nuisance to places where they could do more good. He’d read about a similar effort in the Chilcotin area of British Columbia nearly 100 years ago, in a region that had seen such a sharp depletion of its underground water supply that many people were being left high and dry, despite having water rights.

Trapping had killed off all the beavers in that region, and the ponds had disappeared. Several families of beavers were brought into the region and let loose on upland streams. They built dams, reproduced, and within three to five years the groundwater tables were being recharged.

Kretz saw this as a good way to help water tables in Eastern Washington areas where beavers had also been over-trapped. He knew landowners in other parts of the state would call the Fish and Wildlife Department when beavers would create problems on their property by building dams in culverts or blocking a stream and flooding the surrounding area. He asked Fish and Wildlife to bring him a beaver that had been trapped, but the department said it had no authority to do that.

“The old system was, they’d live-trap a beaver, whack them in the head, and kill them.”

In 2006, he introduced a bill to allow trapped beavers to be relocated. The bill easily passed the Legislature. Objections from Fish and Wildlife, however, prompted Gov. Chris Gregoire to issue the first full veto of her governorship, with a promise that the department would work to find ways to get nuisance beavers relocated.

But Fish and Wildlife has other things on its plate and a declining staff. “The field guys are pretty busy,” Kretz said. And they were reluctant to move the critters to a new location only to have them make another mess.

The Lands Council had the expertise to trap beavers and scope out suitable areas for their relocation and was willing to spend time on such projects. But it didn’t have full authority to do it until Kretz’s most recent bill passed this spring and was signed by Gregoire. Because of a demand by a senator from the Olympic Peninsula, nuisance beavers from Eastern Washington can’t be relocated to Western Washington, although beavers west of the Cascades can be shipped east.

The bill encourages the state to use relocation as a tool for improving watersheds, Parrish said. Most relocations involve families of five or more beavers that are moved from more populated areas into state or national forests.

But that leaves it to the beavers to pick their new home. For Chompski, Kretz and the council staff placed some alder poles in the creek to catch debris as it flows by and start an impoundment in the spot that seems most advantageous. They piled willow and aspen branches on the edge of the slowly forming pond for a temporary home.

They suggested Kretz cut some alder branches near his house and drop them off from time to time, because beavers regard alder the way kids regard candy, Parrish said. The image of beavers being industrious and hardworking isn’t 100 percent true, she added. “They are a little bit lazy.”

The council will probably do about four more relocation projects this summer and fall, but the real goal is a meeting with all “stakeholders” – state departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife, as well as tribes, trappers and nonprofits – to discuss common ground for improving the beaver population.

Kretz is a frequent critic of environmental groups, and the groups also give him low grades on most legislation. But Kretz and Parrish both say they respected each other’s hard work on this issue.

“We’ve knocked heads and probably will again,” he said.