Tribes to deploy beavers in bid to save Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

They’ll get started next spring on a plan to repopulate the marsh with native plants, beavers to bring water back.

By: - October 28, 2021 6:00 am
Klamath River Basin

State law allows for the transfer of water rights claims in the Klamath Basin. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr)

The Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge looks very different today than it did 35 years ago. About 45 miles north of Klamath Falls along the Williamson River, it’s natural waterways are limited, and over the last few decades it’s spent more and more of the year in drought conditions with parts nearly or fully drying up.

Alex Gonyaw, senior fisheries biologist for the Klamath Tribes, said these are the impacts of man-made calamities on the marsh that span more than 200 years.

Among the earliest impacts was the decimation of the North American Beaver, the largest rodent on the continent, weighing anywhere from 35 to 65 pounds and measuring two to three feet in length in adulthood. 

By the late 1800s, beavers were nearly extinct in Oregon due to fur trapping, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Between 1820 to 1880, nearly all the beavers in what is now the wildlife refuge were trapped and sold for their pelts, according to Gonyaw. 

Now, along with other scientists at Klamath Marsh, Gonyaw is trying to bring them back, and hoping their beaver dams help the southern portion of the refuge collect and retain water that can help other species. The area is home to migrating sandhill cranes and Oregon’s spotted frogs, a candidate for the endangered species list. 

For the Klamath Tribes, it’s also an area where elk graze, and where many tribal members rely on hunting in the fall for food to last the winter. 

“After settlement, the view of wetlands was to drain and convert them to something useful, even though they were perfectly useful to the people who’d lived here for 15,000 years,” Gonyaw said of activities like farming and ranching that diverted water from the area to larger swaths of arable and grazing land.

This water diversion has shortened the wet season in the marsh, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

All of a sudden, “What began as a complex, emergent wetland and open water system was converted to a couple puddles,” Gonyaw said. 

That worsened with six years of drought in the last decade, and ground waters in the marsh this year dropping to their lowest levels on record. 

One of the last waterways left in the southern portion of the marsh, called the Little Wocus Bay, was once part of 20,000 acres of watershed, according to Gonyaw. Today the bay spans about 1,000 acres. 

The hope is that this watershed will expand again with the arrival of beavers and their dams. The expectation is that the aquatic rodents will create canals and ponds to expand their habitat. 

North American Beaver nearly went extinct in Oregon (Tim Lumley/Flickr)

Derek Broman, beaver expert at the state Department of Fish and Wildlife said, “beavers like to make a sort of pool-side bar, where they have access to vegetation that they don’t have to venture out of water to get.” 

They create barriers that back up water and channels so they can move through the water and away from land predators. But, Browman said, it’s hard for man to induce beavers to build the dams in the first place.

Despite the growing popularity of using beavers to restore habitats, and even to create aquatic environments that can serve as buffers against wildfire, the Fish and Wildlife Department hasn’t seen a successful significant beaver repopulation in the last decade, according to Broman. 

He recalled a project by Oregon State University researchers where just 50% of the beavers survived, fewer stayed where they were placed and even fewer built dams. 

Across the state, only about one out of three beavers build dams, Broman said. 

“It is not a Disney movie,” he said. “Fish hatcheries, you move so many animals, you can see a pretty high mortality rate. To them 50% is totally normal. For these animals, that is way too high to be acceptable.”

But one state success story was the introduction of beavers in the northeast part of Klamath Marsh. A small population has re-established itself and the Department of Fish and Wildlife recommended expanding the project across wetland and riparian habitats in the basin. 

Gonyaw and employees at the Klamath Marsh are hopeful. 

Alex Gonyaw, Senior Fisheries biologist with the Klamath Tribes is spearheading the beaver repopulation project (Oregon Department of Transportation/Flickr)

To create an inviting environment for beavers, they will plant the area around Little Wocus Bay in native geyer willow – building material for beaver dams.

They hope to get $20,000 in funding from the Oregon Conservation and Recreation Fund to hire tribal youth for that work. They’ll propagate the willows in a greenhouse before planting them in the marsh next fall. They’ll also begin constructing a manmade beaver dam using geyer willow to be a sort of first home for the first beaver family to be transplanted. That will keep them safe while they begin foraging for materials and building their own.

“We need to provide the tool box before we give them a job to do,” Gonyaw said. 

While the beavers give the refuge a second chance, they’ll be given one themselves. Gonyaw said the beavers will be moved from Portland and the Willamette Valley, where they’re plugging culverts or considered a nuisance. 

Gonyaw said that the timeline for getting beavers to re-establish and begin repopulating the marsh is three to five years. But that depends on a few good water years and that drought doesn’t continue to become the norm. 

Gonyaw and the employees of the Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge will closely monitor the beaver families and continue planting willows and other native species to create the ideal climate for an animal that once dominated the landscape and then very nearly became extinct. 

“We’ll cobble together a manmade beaver lodge for them to start with, plant thousands of willows and hopefully something will trigger them to stay, to say, ‘I need to keep doing what I was doing 200 years ago.’” Gonyaw said.

This story has been updated to make clear that beavers were reintroduced to the northeastern part of the marsh, not north of the marsh.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt is a reporter for Oregon Capital Chronicle. She has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.