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Neighbors leave it to the beavers

Initially wary of newcomer, residents now see benefits


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - John Young shows where beavers built a dam behind his property near Kellogg Creek in Milwaukie.At first, John Young thought the debris on Kellogg Creek, which runs through his Milwaukie backyard, was just a logjam, so he broke it up. The next day the logjam was back, so he broke it up again.

On his third try, Young realized he was fighting a losing battle; the logjam was really a beaver dam.

“My son Tom, who is a marine biologist, said, ‘Dad, how long do you want to battle with a rodent? You aren’t going to win.’ ”

Now Young and his neighbors, it seems, are learning to live alongside their new nocturnal neighbor that feeds on trees.

Young initially contacted folks at the Streamside Stewards Program run by the North Clackamas Urban Watershed Council. They confirmed in November that it indeed was a beaver dam. Then they organized a neighborhood meeting in January, so creekside property owners could discuss the implications of a beaver dam in their midst with Susan Barnes, a conservation biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Neighbors were mostly concerned about losing their trees and a change in water levels.

“We determined that there will not be a lot of detrimental impacts because the houses around the beaver pond are set back,” says Tricia Sears, watershed council coordinator.

Chris Runyard, a restoration contractor for the watershed council, explained that the eroding stream banks should reverse and actually fill in a bit over time.

Questions — and answers

At the meeting, neighbors learned the beavers’ appetite for trees might not be limited to those along the creek bank, and that adjoining property owners may need to erect fencing to protect their trees from the nighttime chewers.

Barnes pointed out that many of the shrub and tree species the beaver is chewing on or felling won't actually be killed. “Herbivory action stimulates plant growth so trees and shrubs may look dead,” Barnes says, “but many will actually send up new shoots/stems at the site of chewing.”

Neighbors also learned about the many benefits of a beaver dam.

Steven and Marsha Morasc noticed that ducks seem to like the expanded water area, making the creek more scenic.

Alice Szanto came into the meeting worried about trees falling and damage to the hillsides. She emerged with a more optimistic view of her new neighbor.

“We have a living National Geographic series in our backyards. I consider myself lucky,” Szanto says. “The beaver might chew a substantial amount of trees, but the county can keep planting them, and there are ways to protect the trees we want to keep.”

The beaver dam is certainly a positive for the watershed, says neighbor Mike Pinker.

“They help cool the water temperature and create habitat for other animals," he says. "Beavers are our partners, and they are able to do a much better job than we can.”

Beavers pose no danger to humans and pets, subsisting only on a diet of tree bark. Humans can observe the beavers, but otherwise should not disrupt them, Runyard says. “The dams should be left intact, and the beavers should not be fed human food," he says.

“It is very rare to actually see a beaver. They are pretty sneaky and avoid human contact.”

Crafty creatures enhance habitat

The beaver’s choice to build a dam in the wetlands of Kellogg Creek was fortuitous, Runyard says.

“It is a perfect place for the new beaver family to move in, because all of the houses in the area are high above the flood plain and the beaver pond just replaces the soggy bottoms of the existing wetlands.”

As far as he can see, the only drawback, so far, is that some vegetation may die.

“There is some skunk cabbage that will probably die, as well as quite a few ash, alders, willows and cottonwoods. Most of these are far enough from houses and structures to not have any damage concern,” Runyard says.

There are now two smaller beaver dams at the same site, and he says that will bring many environmental benefits.

“The new beaver dams will improve salmon, bird, amphibian and mammal habitat. The dams will retain mud and sediment in the pond, slow down the waters, and infiltrate more water into the ground. This will benefit the creek and residents downstream.”

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Freshly gnawed wood indicates where beavers on John Youngs property gathered materials for a dam. In addition, beaver dams create new wetlands, which are a high-priority habitat. 

“Even though we have laws that protect them to some extent, most wetlands have been lost,” Barnes says. “They are critical for storing water, cooling water, releasing water, and reducing flashy flows typical in urban streams like Kellogg Creek.”

Runyard says studies of streams with beavers show the salmon are bigger and more numerous than in streams without beavers.

“In this specific area of Kellogg Creek, the beaver is perfectly situated to succeed, along with the human residents,” Runyard says. “I predict great success for all those involved, and that is why we have gotten so involved with this specific site.”

Beaver activity at small sites is usually temporary, though, Barnes says, because there is limited access to food. 

“Beavers are habitat changers and creators,” she says, and humans often have trouble with that change. However, we are the ones who caused the most change to their habitat, “putting roads and houses too close to streams and installing undersized culverts under roads.” 

Redo needed

The North Clackamas Urban Watershed Council had done extensive planting of native trees and shrubs in four of the properties along this section of the creek, as part of the Streamside Stewards Program.

“A lot of our plants are now underwater,” Runyard says. “Some of them will still make it, as this has always been a very wet site. Of course, some will die, but we will still be able to plant higher on the banks where it is drier.”

The watershed council is still talking to neighbors near the pond, and will talk to more people as the beaver makes more dams downstream.

“If we are going to bring strong salmon runs back into the Kellogg Creek watershed, we have to re-create their habitat,” Runyard says “The beaver can help engineer that change and create a healthy place for the coho to thrive. The challenge is to identify locations for this to happen without impacting property owners. It can be done, but it takes some attention and intention.”