Editorial: Learning from the Glendale Creek beaver disaster
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2009:
ANIMAL PEOPLE is headquartered at the top of a steep hill
rising above Glendale Creek. Formed from 5,000 to 9,000 years ago by
runoff from a melting glacier, Glendale Creek cut a deep ravine
through which it flows for about three miles before draining into
Puget Sound at the 10-house village of Glendale.
Glendale a century ago was the chief link between South
Whidbey Island and the mainland. Steam-powered ferries stopped
there. The first car dealership on the island perched precariously
beside Glendale Creek. A narrow gauge railway, built in 1900, ran
from the water’s edge at low tide into the interior of the island.
Eventually about 10 miles long, it hauled huge cedar logs down to
the Sound, where they were floated off of flat cars and tied into
rafts to be tugged to Seattle.
The logging predictably created soil erosion. Loss of
topsoil led to loss of ground covering vegetation and flash floods,
but the loggers, the farmers who followed them to work the land,
and the hunters and fishers who came from the mainland for holidays
of recreational mayhem were all preoccupied with killing most of the
wildlife who survived the tree-cutting.
Circa 1910 a wall of water from a sudden storm roared down
the creek, destroyed the railway trestle, leaving just one cement
pier, and started Glendale toward economic oblivion. The railway
never ran again. The tracks were removed in a 1942 scrap iron drive.
The ferry landing shifted four miles north to Clinton in 1926.
Beavers either survived or were reintroduced at some point
along Maxwelton Creek, a similar stream about five miles west. When
Maxwelton residents complained about beavers flooding fields and
blocking culverts, the Washington state wildlife department in the
mid-1990s proposed moving some of them to Glendale Creek to help
restore the salmon run. Amid the ensuing debate over the possible
impact on property values, both the beavers and the salmon restored
themselves to Glendale Creek, along with river otters. The salmon
spawned below a road culvert about 50 yards south of the old railway
route. The beavers built dams in a spring-fed marsh about two miles
northwest, where the creek rises. The otters roamed the length of
the creek and rivaled raccoons in exploiting neighbors’ goldfish
Coyotes apparently kept the beaver population from becoming
fully self-sustaining. At times the marsh was without beavers for a
year or more, before dispersing young from Maxwelton Creek
recolonized it. Last summer just one lone bachelor beaver found his
way there, according to the keenest local observers. First he
built a dam 50 yards long to try to attract a female, impounding an
estimated 3.5 million gallons of water. Then he apparently journeyed
back to Maxwelton to try to get a female to follow him home. He
appeared to be returning from Maxwelton, still alone, when
roadkilled about half a mile west of his dam.
With no beaver to maintain the dam, it broke after heavy
rainfall in the first days of April 2009. The surge washed debris
into the culvert below the old railway route, causing water to
saturate the road embankment. As water backed up the ravine, a
county maintenance crew tried desperately to use pumps to ease the
pressure on the embankment. At 3:00 a.m. on April 2, firefighters
warned Glendale residents to evacuate. Between three and four hours
later a wave hurled broken asphalt and fallen trees through the wall
of the former Ford dealership, half a mile below, and inundated the
remnants of the village beneath three feet of mud.
The damage was spectacular enough to make the national CNN
television news that day, occasioning concerned calls from as far
away as Montreal and South Carolina.
A sixty-foot-wide, 30-foot-deep gap now interrupts the road
between ANIMAL PEOPLE and our post office box, adding time and
distance to the daily round trip. Yet despite the inconvenience and
the mess, much of the local response centers on the hope that the
culvert will be replaced with a structure that better accommodates
the needs of the salmon, beaver, and otter. Some neighbors who
have suffered major property damage are mourning the loss of the
Despite the amount of attention the Glendale Creek washout
attracted, it was by no means unique. Culvert washouts and flooding
associated with beaver dams are among the most publicized sources of
conflict between humans and wildlife throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Controversies over trapping beavers and destroying dams to prevent
washouts and flooding occur in about 30 states per year.
Ironically, in many cases, including the Glendale Creek
washout, more beavers are better than fewer. In most cases of
beavers impounding too much water in a problematic location, the
issue can be quickly resolved by deploying a leveler or a “beaver
A leveler is a long piece of perforated plastic pipe, thrust
through a dam at whatever height would be safe for rising water to
level off. Beavers instinctively respond to the sound of rushing
water by plugging the hole it is rushing through, but the number of
holes in a long pipe tends to thwart them. As rapidly as one hole is
stopped up, another re-opens.
A “beaver baffler” is most often a rolled piece of wire fence
attached to the mouth of a culvert. It uses the same strategy to
keep beavers from damming culverts.
The most frequent issue associated with beaver dams these
days is that state wildlife agencies use the purported threat of
beaver damage as a pretext for promoting fur trapping–from which the
agencies collect license fees and, in some states, pelt royalties.
The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife is
especially notorious for citing beaver problems in seeking to repeal
or evade the intent of a 1996 voter-passed initiative banning leghold
traps and a 2001 law that transferred the authority to issue licenses
for “emergency” trapping to the state health board.
In January 2009, for instance, Massachusetts Division of
Fisheries and Wildlife Northeast district manager Patricia Huckery
asserted to Boston Globe correspondent Connie Paige that “we don’t
really have predators that control beaver any more, such as wolves,
so they’re not being killed naturally.” This distortion overlooked
that coyotes, not wolves, are the most prolific beaver predators,
and are abundant in Massachusetts, following the recovery of the
beaver population from just a handful of animals 50 years ago to more
than 70,000 today. Oregon State University ecologists William Ripple
and Robert Beschta meanwhile found that within three years of the
Yellowstone wolf reintroduction, the Yellowstone coyote population
plummeted by half, while the beaver population soared by 900%.
Choosing who to live with
The lesson, from Glendale Creek to Cape Cod and all points
north and south, is that living with nature is much easier than
trying to fight nature. Most often, nature provides the solution to
problems resulting from natural events–if humans take the time to
examine and understand what is really happening.
Human conflict with wildlife typically results from killing
one animal, either by intent or accident, without regard to the
consequences for other species. Among the best known examples,
intensive fox trapping in the mid-20th century helped coyotes to
triple their range. Intensive raccoon trapping in the 1970s and
1980s enabled non-migratory Canada geese to proliferate into
nuisances, because raccoons are voracious nest predators.
Intolerance of any species whom a habitat supports in
abundance tends to have unhappy consequences. Purging street dogs
usually enables feral cats to take over their former food sources,
at a ratio of about three cats replacing each dog. In some habitats,
feral pigs or monkeys replace the dogs instead. If cats, pigs, and
monkeys cannot fill the void, rat population explosions follow, and
disease carried by rat parasites, such as the outbreak of bubonic
plague that followed a campaign to poison street dogs in Surat,
India in 1994.
Pontificating about the virtue and necessity of learning to
live with wildlife, including street animals, is of course much
easier than introducing the insights and tactical skills that prevent
conflicts. Practically speaking, most people will only tolerate
animal behavior until it begins to cause them frequent irritation.
Expecting people to accept significant inconvenience, property
damage, or any risk to personal health and security is unrealistic.
Our own evolution as an animal species has always been in the
direction of increasing our ability to manipulate the environment to
suit our interests. The issue, for animal advocates, is to
encourage habitat adjustments that provide what people want, while
accommodating animal needs.
Sometimes the way to do this is relatively obvious. For
example, if people in developing nations wish to reduce their
populations of street dogs–and not have to contend with feral pigs,
monkeys, or feral cats either–the solution is to introduce
refrigeration and improve sanitation, so as to reduce the volume of
food waste that sustains street animals.
Sometimes the issue is multi-faceted. Neuter/return caught on
in the U.S. nearly 20 years ago as an effective approach to feral cat
population control, bringing declines of about 75% in the numbers of
feral cats at large and the numbers of cats brought to animal
Birders should have welcomed the resultant reduction in cat
predation on birds. But reducing the numbers of cats at large
enabled wild bird predators to recover and exploit the same prey
base. At the same time, bird populations were hit by climate
change; bird collisions with newly built microwave transmission
towers, wind turbines, and ever more tall lighted buildings; and
loss of forest understory nesting habitat due to fast-growing deer
populations. Until these new challenges were recognized, cats took
the blame, and are still blamed by many birders.
The American Bird Conservancy and Humane Society of the U.S.
responded with their “Cats Indoors” campaign. Already, before this
campaign ever started, about half of all cat-keepers kept their cats
indoors. Because indoor cats live so much longer, the indoor
cat-keepers kept about two-thirds of all pet cats. Since the “Cats
Indoors” campaign debuted, the indoor pet cat population appears to
have risen from about 50 million to more than 60 million. But the
total pet cat population has grown from about 75 million to nearly 90
million. Most people who have just begun to keep cats in recent
years appear to be accepting the “Cats Indoors” message as a part of
basic cat care, but not all of them. People who let their cats roam
mostly have not amended their behavior.
The net effect of neuter/return plus “Cats Indoors,” in
combination with the overall increase in the number of pet cats, is
that the sum of cats outdoors, pets and ferals combined, appears to
have remained in the range of 30 to 40 million ever since John
Marbanks did his comprehensive population studies in 1947-1950.
Not all people who allow their cats to roam are doing it just
out of habit, or negligence, or perceived irresponsibility.
Countering “Cats Indoors” is a growing “Cats Outdoors” faction, who
argue that outdoor cats fill an ecological and cultural role in urban
and suburban habitat, and that keeping cats indoors is unnatural and
Among the most prominent “Cats Outdoors” advocates is
Redemption author and 2009 No-Kill Conference organizer Nathan
Winograd, who has spent almost his whole life in humane work and
animal rights campaigning. Winograd appears to accept that a cat
living a “natural” life outdoors must learn to evade natural
predators, but “Cats Outdoors” advocate Judith Webster, of
Vancouver, argues in essence that urban coyotes should be
exterminated to keep the sidewalks “safe” for cats.
Since coyotes are at large in Vancouver, Webster has built a
fenced outdoor play area for her cats, and keeps an eye on them with
costly remote cameras.
Establishing public policy that balances the conflicting
perceptions and interests of birders, neuter/return practicioners.
and urban wildlife enthusiasts was difficult enough before “Cats
Outdoors” people began organizing to counter the goals of “Cats
Indoors.” Demographics suggest that “Cats Outdoors” will never
represent more than a small minority of cat-keepers, but having
articulate, affluent, and politically savvy leadership suggests
that this faction cannot be casually dismissed.
The common issue in discussing either problematic wildlife,
street animals, or outdoor cats is ultimately the human choice of
which animals to live with.