TWISP — Beaver No. 38 cautiously wandered out of his cage, waddled through the tall grass and slipped noiselessly into Lightning Creek.
Twelve days earlier, biologists trapped him on the banks of the Twisp River, after people complained that he was damaging an irrigation system.
He lived in an unused raceway with a makeshift lodge at the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery, awaiting results of a genetics test to tell his captors whether he was male or female before they released him Aug. 5.
“This is my favorite part,” said wildlife biologist Alexis Monetta, as she watched him explore his new home.
“It’s definitely the best part of the job,” agreed Gabe Spence, also a wildlife biologist.
The beaver swam across the creek, checked out a small dam, then climbed up on the opposite shore and sniffed around briefly before sliding back into the water and heading upstream.
At this 5,000-foot location, Lightning Creek meanders through lush grass and branchless black trees killed in the 2006 Tripod Fire. It is a high-elevation tributary of Beaver Creek, which flows into the Methow River, and into the Columbia.
Probably only the moose, bear, and a few wildlife biologists have noticed the changes that have occurred here since last summer.
That’s when Methow Valley Beaver Relocation Project biologists brought their first pair of beavers to this beaver-less creek, and let them go. Last month, they released two more. Less than two weeks ago, Beaver No. 38 joined the group.
They are among 80 beavers moved to higher elevations of the Methow Valley over the last three summers. Biologists trapped them after people decided they were a nuisance. They plugged irrigation canals, felled trees at the river’s edge, or flooded private property.
People are allowed to kill beavers that are causing them problems as long as they do it in a safe and humane way, said state Department of Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Jim Brown, who’s in charge of enforcing wildlife regulations in Okanogan County. But if someone wants to keep the pelt, they must obtain a license, he said. “We don’t have a shortage of beavers.”
That may be true in the valley, where people complain about the the damage they’re causing, said Kent Woodruff, a wildlife biologist for the Methow Valley Ranger District who is overseeing the beaver relocation project.
But in some places, Woodruff said, beavers have not recovered from an attempt in the 1800s to wipe them out. And their absence has had a lasting impact on the environment.
“It was the stated goal of George Simpson, governor of the Hudson Bay Company, to turn the Pacific Northwest into a ‘fur desert,’ ” Woodruff said. At the time, beaver pelts were as good as currency. Without beavers, Simpson thought, America would have little incentive to settle and claim the region.
“It was ecological warfare, and they were very successful. In about 25 years, they completely cleaned out the streams,” he said. “They went from rich with beavers to nothing. And we’ve been recovering ever since.”
Up on Lightning Creek, and in several other locations, the relocated beavers have been busy doing what beavers to best: making dams.
Before releasing the first pair here last summer, Monetta said, the creek had several side channels winding through the grassland. This year, there are several mini-ponds, and swampland. The water level is higher than last year, she said.
Monetta and other biologists in the project hope to show that bringing beavers back to the high-elevation streams where they once flourished will improve the health of the ecosystem by creating natural water storage areas, providing more cool water to the late summer stream flows.
It’s not uncommon to trap and move beavers, Spence noted. But usually, the goal is to remove the nuisance, not to reestablish them in a new spot.
“This is pretty much the only one I know of where we’re being really systematic about keeping track of males and females, keeping family groups together, and then trying to track them,” Spence said, adding, “Our main goal is to undo what everyone else has done.”
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512