The first breath of fall arrived Friday, and with it J.B. McCrummen’s Rochester property came alive.
Over a dozen raincoat-clad heads, a northern flicker let out a call, flashing its spotted belly against the foggy sky. Banana slugs made their way across the now-fragrant soil, and chunky black beetles descended from the trees.
But less visible to Friday’s hikers was what they considered the land’s keystone species — the one responsible for the ever-changing wetlands, the ponds, the visiting ducks and otters and the lush foliage: the North American beaver.
Of the 10 years McCrummen’s son, Chris, has been visiting his dad’s property — which has undergone over a decade of conservation efforts — he hasn’t seen a single beaver.
Neighboring property owner Elvin Borg has, but it certainly took some work to spy on the rodents, who navigate underwater for as long as 15 minutes, aided by transparent eyelids and webbed feet.
“I used to sit and hide, and just wait for them to come out toward the evening,” Borg said.
He recalls moving onto the land about a decade ago and telling his sister about the resident beavers.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she replied, according to Borg.
The remark confused him. But it reflects the common and persistent distaste for the animals nationwide.
In 2017, trappers in Washington state alone killed at least 1,700 beavers deemed a nuisance — that’s 20 times more than were relocated alive, according to the Chehalis Lead Entity, which implements salmon recovery projects in the watershed.
North American beavers were nearly eradicated in the 1800s after an explosive pelt trade. Fast forward to 2021, and the species still hasn’t recovered.
But the “ecosystem engineers” are critical. And McCrummen’s property, including the 2-mile Beaver Creek, can be an example of landowners co-existing with beavers, ultimately helping the Chehalis Watershed.
Beavers’ structures create homes for muskrats, mink, otters and small fish and birds. And the wetlands they create are optimal habitats for young salmon.
In the face of climate change and increasing wildfire, those wetlands also act as natural fire breaks, recharging groundwater and raising the water table, ultimately making the land more fire-resistant.
And as major floods are projected to get more frequent and severe, beaver-engineered habitats can slow down water as it moves through the system, reducing erosion and overall impacts to humans.
“We spend tens of millions of dollars getting ecosystems to work, but these guys are like round-the-clock workers,” Lisa McCrummen said. “At the end of the day, beavers create and support wetland and riparian health. So ultimately, you create this ecosystem that’s just much more healthy and allows for a lot more creatures to come and survive.”
Following Lisa McCrummen’s Friday tour were landowners, a watershed coordinator and representatives from Ducks Unlimited and Beavers Northwest. What did the group have in common? If you ask Lisa McCrummen, they’re all “beaver believers” — those who know the power and importance of the species.
While the elusive and mostly nocturnal beavers were nowhere to be seen, evidence of their hard work on the property was plenty.
Beaver-sized pathways meandered from ponds to perfectly-nibbled trees, orange wood chips serving as negatives to the animals’ sharp and ever-growing teeth. Another clue: From pond to winding creeks, water levels dropped significantly after passing through woody dams covered with freshly-packed mud.
According to J.B. — whose conservation and activist work includes directing the first-ever national environmental conference in 1970 — some of those dams are over 100 years old.
Elyssa Kerr, executive director of Beavers Northwest, climbed out near one of them, picking up what she deemed a “very nice beaver stick” — a foot-long branch with teeth marks on either side, the tasty bark thoroughly chewed off.
Kerr has a collection of “beaver sticks,” taking the prizes home or shipping out mailbox-sized finds to beaver enthusiasts.
Much of her job revolves around beaver-human conflict mediation, helping frustrated landowners understand how to co-exist.
“I do sometimes feel like I’m a beaver therapist,” Kerr joked.
For landowners, there are real solutions when beavers are causing legitimate problems. Pond levelers, for example, sometimes called “beaver deceivers,” allow water to flow through dams.
Humans can also protect certain beloved trees from sharp teeth by painting trunks with a combination of sand and paint to deter gnawing. It’s also helpful to plant resprouting trees, like vine maples or willows, which can bounce back after being chewed down.
“God, what would happen if you harnessed the power of beavers? Right?” Lisa McCrummen said. “But you have to have examples for people to test out.”