WL 'Beaver Ambassadors' group sheds light on misunderstood animal
This story has been updated from its original version.
Steven Murschel was running out of time.
It was the summer of 2016, and as part of his environment science management graduate program at Portland State University, Murschel was tasked with finding a "community partner" to work with on a project related to his studies. As the summer months bled into fall, Murschel still couldn't nail down a partner.
"A bunch of people were interested, but I couldn't lock anyone down — and by November (2016) everyone was out," Murschel said. "So I was like, 'What am I going to do now?'"
The answer finally came to him in the spring of 2017, when the teacher for his urban planning class introduced a unit on beavers and took students to Mary S. Young Park in West Linn.
"The teacher was using beavers as the primary tool in (showing) how we explore and think about sense of place and planning," Murschel said. "(West Linn Parks and Recreation Director) Ken Worcester was our tour guide, and I told him I could do some consulting — give some ideas about beaver management. At that point, I had pretty good knowledge. And he was really on board right from the get-go."
It was at that point that the West Linn Beaver Ambassadors group was born. For almost a year now, Murschel and others have led activities with schools, organizations and groups of volunteers in an effort to "increase awareness for the community about the beavers that live in West Linn and why this species is so important to the natural ecosystem." Most recently, on Jan. 11, Murschel led educational workshops with two classrooms at Willamette Primary.
"I work with schools a lot," Murschel said. "And I'm doing a lot of community events so that the community is more aware of the beaver population and the incredible benefits beavers can provide."
The work is timely; on Dec. 27 Wildlife Services — an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — agreed to stop killing beavers and several other marine mammals as part of a response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Northwest Environmental Advocates. The killing was done to advance Wildlife Services' management of "aquatic mammal damage." In the notice for that lawsuit, the organizations wrote that "Beavers are nature's engineers, building dams and creating ponds that are essential to a variety of rare wildlife species in Oregon."
West Linn's beavers — which have made homes at Mary S. Young Park as well as the Willamette, Robinwood and Fields Bridge parks — are behaviorally nocturnal and thus rarely seen out in the open. But their handiwork is abundant, and it takes just a short walk along the paths at Mary S. Young Park to see several beaver-made ponds sheltered by dams and surrounded by trees that have been caged to prevent further gnawing.
The caging is part of the beaver management plan that Murschel has helped steward — and he's also tasked with explaining a process that can seem counterintuitive at first glance.
"Instead of beavers controlling when these trees fall, now management can come in and take these trees down (at a set time)," Murschel said. "There are some concerns that when people see that we cut down trees, they're going to think, 'Why?' But it's so the trees don't fall on people — they come and cut them down before the beaver has a chance to cut them."
The benefits of the local beaver population are easier to explain.
"When they build the dam, the creek flowing through gets stocked up," Murschel said. "Instead of a creek, you have a pond, and a pond is an excellent drinking source, so it will bring larger mammals for drinking. It's a home for reptiles and amphibians and also for insects and smaller bugs — macroinvertebrates.
"When the smaller things start to come as a result of the slow of flow, then everything that eats those things comes, and everything that eats those things comes."
In rainy Oregon, beavers also do their part to prevent flooding, according to Murschel.
"People tend to think beavers cause a lot of flooding," he said. "Flooding problems definitely happen, but in a bigger sense they're holding back more water; they're containing more water."
He compared beaver dams to the man-made bioswales and rain gardens that have become popular solutions for water runoff.
"(A bioswale) slows down peak flow, which is essentially what a beaver dam does, just naturally," Murschel said. "Beaver dams allow peak flows to level off a little better."
Still, overflow from the beaver ponds onto the paths at Mary S. Young Park has become a persistent issue and Murschel said he hoped to find a solution to mitigate that. In the meantime, he continues to work on beaver management plans for the city's parks and collaborate with schools on various projects.
Murschel's work has even reached as far as Salem, as he has assisted on research done by students from the Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School.
"They're doing a really big research project on the area, which is really helpful for my management plans," Murschel said. "We are counting every single tree in the area, and hopefully the outcome will be a map of the forest with every single tree on it — it's also got stumps — and say: 'This tree has been impacted by a beaver, these are the ones that haven't (been affected), this is the percentage of this species of tree that has been eaten by a beaver.'"
For Worcester, the West Linn Beaver Ambassadors group has been a significant boon to the City's outdoor recreation catalogue — an area that was marked for improvement on the heels of recent community surveys conducted by the parks department.
"What we're really trying to do is bring a lot of awareness to the fact that beavers are back, and we have these rare opportunities in some of our parks to showcase what they do," Worcester said. "People — especially kids — are really interested ... and we're doing more outreach and some nighttime programs to kind of see beavers in different parks."
Indeed, the Beaver Ambassadors will host three nighttime excursions in the coming months, the first taking place Jan. 31 at the Camassia Natural Area to celebrate the full moon. That will be followed by other full moon experiences at Willamette Park March 1 and at Mary S. Young Park March 31.
"It's just trying to get people outside," Worcester said.
Murschel, for his part, hopes that the Beaver Ambassador group will continue after he departs upon completion of his program.
"I want to build in some mechanisms to have it continue in perpetuity," he said. "And how you do this is certainly a challenge. But the website and all of the social media will certainly be there, so maybe they can continue to have interns work on it at a lower capacity.
"What they'll definitely get out of it are management plans for this site and a couple of other sites in the city where beavers have impacted massively — that will be incredibly helpful to the city."
In the original version of this story " the name of Steven Murschel was incorrectly cited.