RANDLE — An overcast sky and the off-and-on splatter of raindrops couldn't dim the enthusiasm of wildlife biologists John Jakubowski and Erik White on Thursday as they ventured into the Woods Creek Watchable Wildlife Area to look for signs of beaver living along the creek.
Jakubowski works for the U.S. Forest Service. White is the wildlife program manager for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. The two are working together in a unique partnership to trap and relocate beavers to parts of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest where they're needed. The goal is to improve wildlife habitat, especially for juvenile salmon.
White said he got the idea for a local project after reading newspaper articles about a trapping program in Oregon, as well as speaking with officials from a similar partnership project between the Tulalip Tribe, the Forest Service and other agencies. The latter project began in 2014 and has seen dozens of trapped beavers released in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
"I called the folks in Washington ... and they said we have guy down in your area who live traps. So I said, 'If you could just get me the beaver, then I can start relocating them.' Everything just kind of fell into place," White said.
The Woods Creek wildlife area is about 6 miles south of Randle and offers a 2 1/2 mile walking trail that is popular with birders. Thick vegetation lines the trail, including giant cottonwood, creek dogwood, willow and redcedar trees, as well as various species of fern, red columbine, thistle, wild ginger and dozens of other native plants. It's the perfect home for beaver. Or at least it was.
"We had a public meeting a few years ago about the work in this area and people were asking me, 'What happened to all the beaver dams and beaver ponds that used to be around here?'" Jakubowski said.
Jakubowski, who has been based out of Randle since 2011, said the 4-acre pond was hugely popular in the 1990s, with many locals and tourists coming to fish for coho salmon. But heavy rains in November 2012 washed away the beaver dam, and the pond soon drained away. It wasn't long before reed canary grass, an invasive plant species, moved in, choking out native plant species and reducing habitat available to fish.
"The first step, which we're going to start this year, is treating the reed canary grass. The beaver dam analogs that were built last year, that was kind of putting the cart before the horse," he said. (Beaver dam analogs are artificial beaver dams.)
With more than 20 acres of reed canary grass to remove, Jakubowski knows he has his work cut out for him.
"We have a whole treatment plan that involves the use of herbicide. It's a three-year project. We're just getting the bids on the contract now," Jakubowski said. "It just takes over. My original idea was to dig it out with an excavator."
Jakubowski said that may still be their "plan B" if the herbicide removal doesn't work. Using an excavator would have the added benefit of allowing the existing water under the grass to reflood the area.
"You'd have an instant pond," he said.
Jakubowski and White have now been working together on the Woods Creek project for more than a year. In April 2021, White released two adult beaver in the area, and there are signs that at least one has remained. Although no beaver were spotted Thursday, there were signs of recent activity, such as chewed tree stumps and use of the artificial beaver dams.
Prior to relocation, nuisance beavers were typically euthanized. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, an average of 1,000 beaver are still trapped each year. For many, the animals do nothing more than damage trees and cause flooding. But rather than euthanizing the animals, Jakubowski and White would like to see them returned to the native habit where they can fit into the ecosystem.
"My interest is in restoring the beaver wetlands and the ponds that used to be here for wildlife, beaver and fish," Jakubowski said. "Since I identified it as a restoration opportunity, a bunch of other people are getting involved and now it's becoming a more holistic restoration project where we're going to work on the trail so it's handicap accessible. We're going to be putting gravel down; we already put out some new benches, and they're going to be doing interpretive signs."
Jakubowski estimates the entire restoration project will take five years to complete. He said he doesn't yet have an idea of the total cost but knows he will have to find funding for the project.
How exactly do beavers benefit fish recovery? White said a 2016 report from Rob Walton of the National Marine Fisheries Service on coho salmon recovery explained it best.
"As he went through his analysis to recover that particular species, he said the primary limiting factor for coho salmon was the removal of beaver from the watershed," White said. "In the (beaver) ponds, the water slows down so the coho don't have use as much energy to stay in place, the food isn't moving as fast, there's more area for them to be, it's a richer environment. ... The habitat they provide is so much superior to a general stream environment that it just makes the species thrive."
According to Walton's report, beaver removal also leads to degraded stream habitat. Walton states beaver exploitation for the fur trade left them nearly extinct by 1900, although some researchers believe beaver populations were impacted more by early-1900s forestry and agricultural practices. The report says although numbers have increased since then, beaver remain at 3 to 10 percent of their historical levels.
White said the presence of beaver provides not just better habitat but leads to larger numbers of juvenile salmon present.
"Woods Creek is a coho-rearing stream. The pond was just an incredible coho-rearing habitat," Jakubowski added.
White said there are already signs that salmon are rebounding in Woods Creek, as well as nearby Ames Creek. Both creeks flow into the Cispus River, which feeds into Riffe Lake.
"We had released beaver upstream because of how good this coho habitat was, so I walked it and it's chock-full of juvenile coho," White said. "I even found a small beaver dam that built on one of the channels, too."
With juvenile salmon already spotted in the creeks, Jakubowski and White are confident returning beaver to the former pond site will only benefit salmon more.
"Beavers are awesome. We just need more of them," Jakubowski said.