In Oregon, private landowners may “lethally remove beaver without a permit,” according to guidance from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. A bill moving its way through the state legislature would change that. Advocates say that the current classification of beavers as a “predatory animal” on private lands limits data and ODFW control of the rodent. The bill aims to classify beavers as a “furbearer” on private lands which means the animal would be treated similarly to a raccoon or fox. Beavers already have this designation on public lands. Opponents say the current classification allows landowners, like producers, to keep their property safe from damage.
In a statement, the Oregon Farm Bureau, which is opposed to the bill, wrote that the bill “allows for no consideration of a farmer or ranchers’ operation, time, expense, or economic loss, including any losses related to the delay in management while they try to determine the complicated management structure HB 3464 A has created.”
We learn more about the bill, from Sristi Kamal, the deputy director of the Western Environmental Law Center and a proponent of the bill.
Editor’s Note: Think Out Loud reached out to the Oregon Farm Bureau to join this conversation, but the organization declined.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Private landowners in the Beaver State can lethally remove beavers without a permit. That’s according to guidance from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. A bill moving its way through the state legislature would change that. Advocates say that the current classification of beavers as a predatory animal on private lands limits data and ODFW control of these semi aquatic rodents. Opponents say the current classification allows farmers or orchardists to keep their property safe from damage. The Oregon Farm Bureau, which has mounted some organized opposition to this bill, declined to join us for this conversation. But Sristi Kamal is with us. She is the deputy director of the Western Environmental Law Center, and she is in favor of the bill. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Sristi Kamal: Thank you so much.
Miller: What’s the status quo right now in terms of beaver protections?
Kamal: Beavers in Oregon, which is the Beaver State, is managed in a very fractured manner depending on the land ownership type. On federal and state public lands, they are managed by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. However, on private lands, beavers are classified as predatory animals, because of which their “management” is by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. How did beavers get classified as predatory animal is a good question, because beavers are strictly herbivorous animals and they don’t predate on other animals. But this erroneous classification came about because beavers are scientifically classified as rodents, and in Oregon under Oregon law ORS 610, all rodents are classified as predatory animals.
Miller: My understanding is that this is a kind of a difference in statute between animals, like rodents or some birds, that are seen as damaging to crops, as opposed to animals that hunt and eat other animals. It’s a difference between a dictionary definition and a longstanding statutory working definition?
Kamal: That is absolutely correct. The definition of predatory animal is a statutory definition. But because of their statutory definition, their management is not done by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is our state agency for managing and conserving wildlife species. Because of this particular classification, beavers’ management on private land came to be with Oregon Department of Agriculture. And that is primarily in response to the potential damage that beavers can cause on agricultural lands.
Miller: So what happens right now if a blueberry farmer, say, in the Willamette Valley, sees a beaver, and let’s say they’re not in the process of damming up a stream right next to the blueberry fields. What can that farmer legally do?
Kamal: Under the current law, the farmer can kill the beaver and not report it. There is no requirement for damage or actual potential proof of damage to kill a beaver. You can, under current law on private plans, kill beavers or beaver families at any point or time in the year, including breeding and rearing seasons. And there is no number limit on that, and you don’t have to report the take to ODA or ODFW.
Miller: This is a good time to turn to broader reasons that you and many others are pushing for a change. Can you remind us what role beavers play in ecosystems?
Kamal: That’s a great question, Dave. That is the reason why this bill came about to be. Beavers, under the current classification of predatory animals, only gets to be accounted for the potential damage they cause. However, the benefits that beavers bring are not taken into account in this particular classification. What I mean by benefits from beavers is that beavers are our allies against climate change impacts such as wildfire, drought, and other big climate change impacts that we are already seeing in Oregon. Beaver modified habitats enhance fire resiliency, they create wildfire breaks. And they also create climate refugia for other species. They also improve water security, water quality, water temperature that are critical for many other imperiled species like salmon. And also, beaver modified habitat sequester carbon and therefore also help us with climate change impacts in that way.
So there are several benefits that we get from beavers being in the landscape that they live in that are currently going unaccounted for.
Miller: Unaccounted for in particular on private land, right? People are paying attention on the various patchworks of public land in Oregon?
Kamal: That is correct. But because we do not have a consistent documentation of their population, where they occur, where their take is happening, it is really hard to measure and understand what the impacts of beavers have been on that landscape, and therefore what impacts their removal causes.
Miller: How has the bill been amended since it was first introduced? And I should say that the bill that eventually did pass the House, how was that amended?
Kamal: The bill we are talking about right now, which is House Bill 3464, went through one major amendment in the House Committee on Climate Change and Environment, and that amendment was basically to address the concerns that we heard during public hearing on protecting landowners rights if they were to face potential damage from beavers. As the bill language stands, it requires landowners to get a permit from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife before taking a beaver, and then also reporting it after.
However, if there is a threat, an imminent threat to damage to infrastructure or agricultural crops, like the ones you mentioned, blueberries, hazelnuts, then a landowner can take a beaver without a permit. They just have to report it after to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Miller: What would an imminent threat be? I’m so used to, after 2001, there’s a person with a bomb on a train. Here, we’re talking about beavers with sharp teeth and trees, right? We’re talking basically about dams. So and not to make light of this, but would a farmer need to see a beaver’s teeth on a tree that was near a stream? How would ODFW decide, I guess after the fact, that an emergency killing of a beaver was justified?
Kamal: This is definitely still subjective, I will agree to that. But what we are seeing is from the perspective of the landowner. Let’s say it’s Friday evening, and ODFW’s field offices are going to be closed for the weekend, and you already noticed a beaver on your property that’s already damaged a tree. Now if you have to wait till Monday to get that permit, there is the potential that you might lose a few more trees in that process.
Miller: And I should say your example here, this was the exact kind of scenario that people who were supposed to this bill at one point brought up. They said what about Friday or Saturday or Sunday? But go on.
Kamal: Then let’s say this is a hazelnut farmer, and so he’s worried about his seedlings that are going to be damaged by Monday by the time he can get a permit. So under those circumstances, the farmer can take the beaver and report it to ODFW on Monday that he did that. That’s the kind of imminent threat we are talking about. Further imminent threat could be to infrastructure like culverts, flooding on agricultural lands that they already noticed is happening and it’s only going to expand in the next couple of days. That’s the kind of threat that we want landowners to be able to protect their property from.
Miller: Versions of this bill have been introduced in previous years, but my understanding is that those earlier efforts never cleared a chamber the way this bill has, clearing the house recently. What’s been different this time around?
Kamal: That’s a really good observation Dave, and that is exactly what has happened this year. And I give full credit to the bill proponent and chief sponsor Representative Pam Marsh for working with her colleagues, including her Republican colleagues, to find a solution that not only acknowledges the ecological benefits of beavers, but also addresses the concerns landowners might have from having this particular change in beaver management. And in the past, that has been the sticking point, how do we address landowner concerns?
The amendment that I just mentioned was a huge step forward for that, followed by another provision we made in the same amendment where we decided that we will respect and uphold the agreements made between parties in the Private Forest Accord, which was a negotiation between timber and environmental groups facilitated by then Governor Kate Brown. And so this bill basically says that it will protect and uphold whatever agreements were made between private forest landowners and environmental groups at that time. Beaver was one of the talking points in that negotiation, and this bill basically says wherever private forest lands occur, Private Forest Accord will apply and this bill will not.
Miller: Well along those lines, the Oregon Farm Bureau took issue with an aspect of that amendment. They wrote: ‘if you’re the owner of small forest land, you can take a beaver if there is the “potential” to cause damage, but agricultural landowners can take the beaver if it imminently threatens agricultural crops,’ that was sort of the emergency scenario we were talking about earlier. And they added ‘neither term is defined in the bill,’ and in a statement to us and in testimony to lawmakers, they basically said that that they the bill as written now is needlessly confusing in terms of the categories of who would have agricultural land versus small forest land, which they say is a key issue given the different rules governing when you can kill beavers on those different kinds of land. What’s your response?
Kamal: My response to that is the classification of what is private forest land is not determined by this bill, that was determined by the Private Forest Accord. That was a negotiation between private forest landowners and other interest groups. So we are not changing that definition. The wonkiness of beaver management is because of this sort of fractured management we already had that we are trying to bring together now under ODFW. We are just respecting what the Private Forest Accord did for private forest lands, and making the change for agricultural lands.
The Private Forest Accord also has the term “imminent threat.” And that’s the same terminology that we are borrowing for this bill as well. Because, if this bill passes, the management will head to ODFW, and ODFW is directed by the Fish and Wildlife Commission, so the commission, under their guidelines, can prescribe what imminent threat could look like, whether it’s in time duration, whether it’s the intensity of damage, or many other factors can be considered. So there are further ways to define what imminent could mean. But we tried to bring as much as possible alignment with the Private Forest Accord.
Miller: I wanna run another line from you from testimony in opposition. It came from Becky Berger, who says that they farm in Washington Polk and Yamhill counties. She said “we need to be allowed to rid ourselves of beavers that are causing severe problems.” This is after she outlined serious problems that they had had in the last harvest season. She wrote “there seems to be a growing population, and consequently increasing problems, with these animals.”
How much do we know about beaver populations in Oregon? And are they on the rise?
Kamal: That is a really good question. And the short answer to that is no, we don’t know what the beaver population is because the population is not monitored or documented in any way on private lands. We have data on public lands, but for the whole state, a lot of our land is private lands, we do not have that data.
What is important to realize is beaver behavior is not similar to other wildlife species. And so some of these concerns are not warranted because beavers are territorial animals. So if you on your property, for example, have a beaver or a beaver family, it does not mean that by tomorrow, you’ll have five beaver families and the population has exploded on your property. That one beaver family is more than likely to keep all the other beavers out or they are going to get replaced. So you basically have to figure out as a landowner how to live with the beaver family you have. However, if you end up killing the beaver family and you do have beaver suitable habitat on your property, there is a very high likelihood that the beaver family you killed is going to be replaced by another beaver sometime down the line, and the cycle continues. So it is a very short term solution to actually kill beavers on private lands rather than focusing on how to coexist with the family you have.
Miller: The amendments that we talked about earlier that seem to have made the difference this year as opposed to previous years, they were enough to secure some bipartisan support and passage in the House, and that’s why the bill is now in the Senate. How has the Republican walkout there affected this bill’s chances?
Kamal: Unfortunately, we are currently stalled in the Senate. So we had a public hearing and a work session on this bill on May 10th in the Senate Natural Resources Committee. And the bill passed out of that committee. But without the Republican senators coming back to that chamber, where we are stalled at the moment. We are really hopeful that they can find a resolution and some reconciliation to be able to come back, because as you already noted, this is the first time this bill has moved this far along in the chamber. And this is the first time that we have been able to secure bipartisan support on this bill. And that was purely because we worked so hard on getting that amendment and finding that common ground. So this is momentum we have built, and we will really be sad to lose this momentum that took so long to come in the first place.
Miller: Sristi Kamal, thanks very much.
Kamal: Thank you so much, Dave.
Miller: Sristi Kamal is the deputy director of the Western Environmental Law Center.
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