Environmental groups push for new approach to beavers

A beaver in the Sante Fe Canyon Preserve. Courtesy photo Robert Findling

Environmental advocates in New Mexico say they hope the state will shift its policies on beavers — animals they say provide ecological benefits for river and stream habitats even as they create occasional headaches for irrigators and private landowners by blocking flows and damaging trees.

The animals sometimes complicate stream channels, which can create habitat for fish and other aquatic species, said Chris Smith, Southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit.

They also form wetlands habitat — rare in the desert Southwest — and filter sediment, which improves water quality, Smith said.

In May, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed seven new members to the State Game Commission, charged with creating regulations regarding fish and wildlife in the state. WildEarth Guardians and other groups see those changes as a chance for the state to begin rethinking how it manages beaver populations, including policy revisions on beaver removal and relocation.

The revamped State Game Commission “has an opportunity to turn a page and create a new relationship and a new narrative with beavers that isn’t driven by this totally outdated belief that beavers are … problems,” said John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians.

The opportunity, WildEarth Guardians says, comes as the beaver population appears to be growing in the Jemez Mountains.

The Department of Game and Fish doesn’t have current data about how many beavers are in New Mexico, though an agency document from about eight years ago estimated there were around 6,000 in the state. Currently, Horning believes there are around 200 beaver dams along a stretch of the Santa Fe River near the airport.

While Horning said beavers aren’t endangered in the state, he argued it would be beneficial to have more of them because of the ecological value they provide.

But he said one challenge is that when Game and Fish receives a complaint about a beaver, officers with the agency often kill the animal — a management approach he called “antiquated.”

James Pitman, assistant chief of information for the Department of Game and Fish, said the state, which does view beavers as beneficial when in suitable habitat, has a number of techniques it uses to mitigate conflict between humans and beavers. “Lethal control” is one of those. But he said the primary approach is educating landowners about how to coexist with beavers.

He added that the state’s Wildlife Division is developing and revising its beaver management strategies. This includes doing a survey of “beaver occurrences” and creating guidelines for relocation and for assessing the habitat suitability of relocation sites.

Joanna Prukop, chairwoman of the State Game Commission, did not respond to a request for comment on whether the commission would consider changes to beaver management practice.

Pitman said the commission “carefully assesses how the department addresses these conflicts between humans and beavers.”

But Bryan Bird, Southwest program director with the national nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, said the state has made a potential solution to human-beaver conflict — such as moving the animal to a location where it would be beneficial to the environment and less likely to come into conflict with humans — difficult to execute.

“Game and Fish made all these contingencies in their permits that were almost impossible to meet,” he said.

A copy of a state permit for beaver relocation shows a clause requiring consent for the effort from all property owners, land management agencies, irrigation districts and other parties along waterways within a five-mile radius of the proposed release site.

Bird said he’s hopeful the new commissioners will make it easier to move beavers “from places we don’t want them to places we do want them.

“The momentum is there to really learn to coexist with beavers, so I think we’re in a really exciting time right now,” Bird said.

Pitman said the department has extensive regulations around moving wildlife, including beavers, because of safety concerns, the potential for disease transmission between populations and the possibility that such relocations will help spread invasive species. He said relocating a beaver requires careful planning.

“Mortality can be as high as 50 percent during or after the transfer process,” Pitman said. “So that’s why it’s truly important that relocations are only conducted by trained wildlife professionals with that experience in capturing, handling and mobilizing the animals.”

Pitman did not give an exact number of how many beavers the department has relocated this year. But he said several beavers were recently moved from the Las Vegas, N.M., area to private lands with suitable habitat.

Even as beavers frequently come into conflict with landowners, one improvement for the animal has been the decline of trapping. Historically, Bird said, beavers in New Mexico were nearly decimated by the practice. He estimated their population began to rebound in the 1970s or ’80s. Currently, he said, there are few people trapping beavers for commercial purposes.

“It is still there, but I don’t think [trapping] is the biggest challenge to the beaver’s survival anymore,” he said. “It’s really the habitat: whether it’s there or not.”

Despite the ecological benefits they provide, beavers can create problems, said Robert Findling, director of land protection and stewardship at the New Mexico branch of The Nature Conservancy.

“When beavers disrupt flow on an acequia, that becomes an issue for irrigators, who don’t have the time or sometimes the means to, on a repetitive basis, remove the dams and downed cottonwood trees and other riparian trees that are obstructing flows,” he said.

But advocates say the key is to increase residents’ understanding of the role beavers play in the environment.

“I think the state needs to do a better job of explaining that and protecting beavers,” Smith, from WildEarth Guardians, said.