Institutional Obstacles to Beaver Recolonization and Potential Climate Change Adaptation in Oregon, USA
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Institutional Obstacles to Beaver Recolonization and Potential Climate Change Adaptation in Oregon, USA

Across the American West, stream flows are becoming more seasonal. Climate models predict that this trend will intensify for the foreseeable future. As a result, moist habitats and human water sources are likely to be diminished in dry seasons while flows will intensify in wet seasons. Through their dam/pond systems, beaver have been shown to increase water storage in ponds and surrounding floodplains, thus slowing winter flows, increasing riparian and meadow water availability, and extending stream flow up to six weeks into dry summer seasons. Thus, allowing an increase in historically low beaver populations could provide a low-cost means of addressing both habitat and seasonality concerns. Yet, in Oregon, beaver are absent from the official discourses on adapting human systems and habitats to climate change. Through forty key informant interviews and an analysis of official policy and publications, this study identifies and critically examines five institutional blockages to beaver recolonization. That analysis clarifies the imprint of political pragmatism and institutional sub-cultures upon beaver presence in Oregon today.


beaver reintroduction, climate adaptation, institutional cultures, Oregon

Over the past decade in the Western United States, several nongovernment groups and individuals within government agencies have become interested in assisting beaver recolonization. These agents are motivated primarily by concerns with habitat restoration. Research in Oregon and Washington shows that beaver dam/pond systems can significantly enhance habitat for salmonids (Pollock with various co-authors: 2007, 2004, 2003; Burnett et al. 2007) and for fifty of the 115 species identified for special treatment by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (2006b; see also Müller-Schwarze and Sun 2003). Other actors are also interested in the ability [End Page 93] of beaver to create wetland habitat as a way to moderate the predicted landscape-scale drying associated with climate change in the Western United States (Pollock et al. 2012; DeVries et al. 2012; Wild 2011; Bird et al. 2011).

Several studies indicate that the observed shift from winter snow toward rain regimes in the West’s highlands will strengthen in the coming decades (Westerling 2016; Mote and Salathé 2010; Nolin and Daly 2006). Related studies forecast that currently increasing winter and decreasing summer stream flows will become ever more pronounced (Chang and Jung 2010; Chang and Jones 2010). Beaver could potentially mitigate against that seasonality in a number of ways (Baldwin 2015). In appropriate conditions, beaver can build up to ten dams per channel kilometer (Warren 1926; Baker and Hill 2003), and in low gradient environments with wide valley bottoms, each dam can bank up to 7,400 cubic meters of water in associated ponds and through local aquifer recharge (Westbrook, Cooper, and Baker 2006). One policy conservation specialist (Vickerman 2011) referred to beaver recolonization as “low hanging fruit”—an inexpensive program with tangible benefits.

Yet, in the official discourse of habitat restoration and climate change adaptation in Oregon, beaver are nearly absent; and across Oregon landscapes, there is little evidence of increased beaver presence. This study asks, “Why?”

In an effort to understand these policy and practical absences, this study examines and characterizes the culture of land and wildlife management professionals and policy makers in Oregon. Through forty key informant interviews and a critical review of literature published by state wildlife management and climate change institutions, the study identifies and critically analyzes five institutional obstacles to beaver recolonization and/or reintroduction. The first two of these are legislative: (1) the need for “political neutrality” in climate change adaptation documents and recommendations published by the state, and (2) the statutory listing and treatment of beaver as predators. The latter three pertain to positions shared by many wildlife management specialists that: (3) beaver currently occupy all appropriate habitat, (4) trapping does not affect populations or recolonization, and (5) beaver reintroduction is ineffective.

Historical Background

Our knowledge of current and historic beaver populations and presence in Oregon and in the West generally is incomplete (see Lanman et al. 2013 for review of pre-historic populations in California). Because beaver are not [End Page 94] game animals, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) has...