Fake beaver dam bill divides environmentalists

Fake beaver dam bill divides environmentalists
Mateusz Perkowski
Capital Press

April 1, 2015

Legislation that would encourage landowners to build artificial beaver dams as part of a pilot project has run into opposition from some environmentalists.

SALEM — A bill meant to encourage the construction of artificial beaver dams in Oregon’s Malheur Lake drainage basin to improve stream conditions has divided environmental groups.

House Bill 3217 would create a pilot project in the area streamlining the permitting process for these structures, which are intended to restore stream functions to the benefit of the environment and landowners.

The Oregon Natural Desert Association is supporting the legislation but several other environmental groups came out against it during a March 31 hearing before the House Committee on Rural Communities, Land Use and Water.

Currently, landowners who hope build artificial beaver dams must undergo a difficult permitting process, said Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem.

While they may benefit from better forage conditions, the expense and bureacratic hurdles prevent many landowners from pursuing such projects, he said. “Not every rancher is going to be willing to spend that kind of money.”

Under HB 3217, regulators could provide a “general authorization” for artificial beaver dams in that basin so that landowners would not have to obtain a separate removal-fill permit for each structure. The dams would also be exempt from fish passage requirements in some circumstances.

The goal is to slow down “flashy” streams that are often dry and ultimately create habitat for the reintroduction of actual beavers, said Martha Pagel, a representative of Silvies Valley Ranch near Burns, Ore., which uses the structures.

“It promotes voluntary stream restoration by private landowners,” she said. “It is not an end run around permitting.”

Many streams that now cut deep gullies through the landscape historically meandered through marshy meadows, said Gordon Grant, a hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

That hydrology was changed when beaver populations were reduced through trapping and a combination of other factors, Grant said.

Beavers will not re-occupy such streams until they’re restored and contain the right food sources, he said.

Artificial beaver dams can help reconnect streams to their historic flood plains, allowing them to store water, said Alan Hickenbottom, a board member of ONDA.

The structures help slow the runoff of melting snow and increase groundwater recharge, he said.

WaterWatch of Oregon recognizes the bill’s good intentions but is opposed to it as drafted, said Brian Posewitz, attorney for the group.

It’s unclear why the stream restoration goals can’t be accomplished under the existing regulatory structure, he said.

The exemption to fish passage requirements is “dangerous,” Posewitz said.

Artificial dams do not precisely mimic their natural counterparts, which permit fish to migrate, said Tom Wolf, executive director of the Oregon Council of Trout Unlimited.

“They’re not solid structures, they have holes in them,” he said.

Clem said the bill is intended to serve as a pilot program for streams that are currently dry much of the year but may someday contain fish if conditions are restored.

“They’re dry gulches,” he said.