As the news cycle slows down enough to accommodate the habit of giving thanks for all that stolen Indigenous land dedicated to growing Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes and legal weed, I would like to take a moment to inform you of some important news.
Seattle is chock full of beavers.
Okay, stop chuckling. Seriously: This city has an abundance of those furry, flat-tailed, bucked-tooth critters. And while you’ve got some spare time this weekend, we recommend you get your tryptophan-addled ass off the couch, put on your rain boots (no, we did not call them “rubbers”) and go beaver spotting.
Seattle has a surprising variety of wildlife. I’ve seen coyotes loping around the Arboretum. In my backyard I’ve watched a hawk swoop down and carry off a horny, distracted rabbit. Earlier this month, I viewed a parade of chum salmon fighting their way upstream at Piper Creek to spawn and die. This city is a freaking wild kingdom.
Beavers are part of that remarkable comeback. Ben Dittbrenner, a wildlife biologist and co-founder of the nonprofit Beavers Northwest, says he and his colleagues conducted a study two years ago mapping urban beaver habitat. “We walked all the streams in the city,” he says. “We put together a map and found out there’s evidence of active beaver lodges or colonies in every single surface water in Seattle.”
Beavers are fucking fascinating. Prior to the arrival of European colonizers, there were as many as 500 million beavers in North America. They’ve been doing their thing — chopping down trees, building dams, and creating wetlands — for 20 million years. Of course, westward migration sucked for beavers. Thanks to the popularity of Mr. Monopoly top hats made from their pelts, beavers were extensively trapped, and their populations plummeted by more than 90%. Following the trapping, homesteaders declared war on beavers, slaughtering them and draining their ponds for farmland.
Today, Beavers Northwest helps landowners realize the benefits of beaver. With the help of devices such as pond levelers (basically a plastic pipe that creates a predictable level of floodwater), beavers are reclaiming their space. And it gives me great happiness to learn from Dittbrenner that a device designed to keep beavers from plugging up road culverts is known as a “beaver deceiver.” Note to any all-gal bands in Olympia: This name is still available.
Beaver-created urban wetlands fulfill the literally vital role of restoring wildlife complexity. “As ecosystem engineers,” Dittbrenner says, “beavers enable all these other creatures — from birds to fish to amphibians to mammals — to capitalize on that habitat.”
Migrating salmon love beaver ponds for their cold, still water. And, as it turns out, beavers use that cold water to store their snacks. “During the wintertime, they’ll take down trees and sticks that they eat and put them in the bottom of the lake. Basically it’s like a big refrigerator," Dittbrenner says.
I recently went in search of these adorable creatures using Beavers Northwests’ handy online map and mucked around the extensive wetlands at the center of Magnuson Park. If you find a spot with weird stone obelisk, nearby you’ll see evidence of a large beaver dam, complete with a quiet pond, cattails, and plenty of migrating ducks.
Apparently, just before sunset is the best time to catch a glimpse of a waddling beaver. Though I tromped through the mud and patiently waited, I never saw or heard more than a croaking bullfrog and some squabbling crows.
But then, just off the trail: evidence! A cottonwood gnawed nearly halfway through by those sharp little teeth. Even though I never saw a beaver, I knew they were out there somewhere.
If you venture out, the best places for beaver viewing include Promontory Ponds in Magnuson Park, the wetlands at the north end of Golden Gardens, a natural area just around the corner from the Kraken practice ice rink in Northgate, Meadowbrook Pond, and the wetlands near the Urban Horticulture Center. In the South End there’s a sizable beaver lodge near the Adams Street Boat Ramp. You can find all of these locations in Beavers Northwest’s online map.
I think we can agree: Beavers are damn cute. They’re social animals that live in communal lodges and like to build stuff. What’s not to love?
“There’s a weird kinship between beavers and people,” Dittbrenner says. “I think it’s because they’re ecosystem engineers and have an impact on the landscape. We’re able to relate to them.”