Dredge Lake beavers given a reprieve

Posted: Monday, March 10, 2008

Bob Armstrong and Mary Willson scrambled down the rotten-snow-covered bank of Steep Creek on Friday afternoon to remove a newly made beaver dam.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The friends spent 20 minutes clearing piles of branches 2 to 4 inches thick, blocking the mouths of two culverts directing the creek under Glacier Spur Road.

"It was clear a couple of days ago," Armstrong said. "It's pretty impressive for two days."

As the ice melts and water opens, beavers in the Dredge Lake area have returned to their natural and compulsive effort to stop flowing water with their stick-filled structures.

This year, as the beavers build, a group of volunteers will work to undo negative effects by hand-clearing culverts for fish passage.

If they succeed, the beavers live. If not, the U.S. Forest Service will kill up to 15 with traps.

Last summer Forest Service officials decided to kill beavers in the Dredge Lakes area by "lethal trapping." They hoped to reduce flood damage to trails and roads caused by dam building, and open culverts for coho, sockeye and cutthroat trout that spawn in the area.

District Ranger Pete Griffin said his mind changed after a loosely organized group asked him for a year-long chance to reverse the effects of the incessant dam building.

"I don't like the idea of killing something you think is in your way," Willson said.

Griffin said the group made a good argument about the intersection of man and wildlife, and offered to undo the beavers' work blocking fish passage and flooding trails.

"If they can do that, then we're on the way to a solution," Griffin said. "If not, I still have the permanent solution."

The decision to kill beavers in the Dredge Lake area was made about five years ago. Nonlethal traps were used four years ago, Griffin said. Those beavers were moved out the road.

The primary trouble spots are along Steep Creek and the southwest corner of the lakes, Griffin said. As much as he agrees with Armstrong and Willson, Griffin said he also has the job to protect trails and roads and keep access to spawning habitat open.

Armstrong, a former fisheries biologist, said there is irony in the Steep Creek situation. Without beaver ponds and puddles, the prime coho salmon spawning habitat needing protection would not exist.

"The creek would be a sluice box without them," he said. "I've never seen a system this small this productive."

Initially it took a dozen people days to clear the culverts. Armstrong said salmon shimmied between volunteers' legs the moment the way was clear. Each day for five days, people removed what the beavers rebuilt at night.

Work stopped as cold weather set in and the beavers settled into various lodges for the winter. With spring on the way and new evidence of dam construction, Armstrong said he believes the volunteers can keep up and undo the beavers' work in the right places.

"It worked last fall," he said.

"I think we're going to have our work cut out for us," Willson said.

• Contact reporter Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or greg.skinner@juneauempire.com.

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