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City of Port Alberni learns to coexist with beavers

New flow devices put Vancouver Island on cutting edge of ecology
Chris Holtslag of VanIsle Wetlands installs a flow device at a beaver conflict site that will allow water to continue moving. (PHOTO COURTESY CITY OF PORT ALBERNI)

Port Alberni has become the first beaver-friendly community on Vancouver Island.

The city has partnered with The Fur-Bearers (a non-profit society dedicated to protecting fur-bearing animals) and VanIsle Wetlands (a Port Alberni company that specializes in non-lethal methods of managing beaver activities) to have beaver conflict sites fitted with “flow devices” that will reduce lethal trapping while protecting local infrastructure, wildlife and the greater community.

Lesley Fox, the executive director of the Fur-Bearers, said the non-profit reached out to the city of Port Alberni about a year ago, proposing a sustainable, coexistence-focused solution to beaver conflict sites.

“Most people are surprised to know that beavers are a part of our cities,” she explained. “This is an opportunity for understanding the role of beavers, and the important role they play in keeping the water on land.”

Biologists classify beavers as a “keystone species,” says Fox, because of their ability to create diverse habitats and ecosystems through damming. Beaver dams function like natural sponges by storing runoff water and slowly releasing it, reducing downstream flooding and erosion.

Chris Holtslag, the founder of VanIsle Wetlands, says beaver dams can also protect downstream spawning areas, which helps increase salmon and trout populations.

“You get better fish, bigger fish when you have slow-moving streams,” said Holtslag.

However, dams can also lead to infrastructure damage. A blocked culvert, for example, can cause flooding and damage to nearby roadways.

Removing dams and beavers are short-term solutions, as new beavers will return to the sites where beavers were removed. Beavers are triggered by the sound and flow of the water to build a dam, explained Holtslag.

“Trapping one or two of them does nothing,” he said. “If you did manage to trap an entire family of beavers, the site would sit dormant for a year or two, and then a new family would come in.”

“There’s a misconception that you can trap and relocate beavers,” said Fox. “You can’t legally relocate beavers in B.C. because they’re considered a nuisance animal.”

The animals are instead trapped and euthanized. The cost of constantly trapping animals, plus the cost of maintenance, can add up for municipalities, added Fox.

Flow devices are a solution that can protect both the animals and the infrastructure, by allowing water to continue moving as designed regardless of damming activity. These devices have now been installed in two locations on Lugrin Creek: one can be found just off of Beaver Creek Road, across the street from the Alberni Co-op, while the other is located on the Kitsuksis Dyke trail.

The two sites were “especially troublesome” with beavers, said Fox. The mouth of the culvert on Beaver Creek Road had been blocked by a four-foot dam. Holtslag installed a culvert protection fence, as well as a pond leveller: a pipe and cage system that helps to manage the height and volume of water near beaver dams. The cage at the end protects the intake from damage.

“It was a lot of work, very muddy,” said Holtslag. “I put a hole in my hip waders in the first five minutes.”

At the other site on the Kitsuksis Dyke trail, Holtslag installed a pond leveller straight through a beaver dam.

He expects the devices to last five to 10 years. They are fairly inexpensive to install, he said, and don’t require a lot of maintenance.

“We’re crossing our fingers now that everything stays put,” he said.

Fox said she’s not aware of any other municipality on Vancouver Island that has made this commitment to addressing conflict sites, although the Fur-Bearers have worked with other municipalities in the Lower Mainland to install flow devices.

“It’s really taking off in other places in B.C.,” she said. “This is a great success story, not only for Port Alberni, but the Island as a whole. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback from local residents, who are happy to see a more long-term solution,” she added.

Fox says a shift in policies is happening at the municipal level when it comes to wildlife.

“We’re responding to a need, and it’s coming from the municipalities, for long-term, safer ways of managing wildlife conflicts,” she said. “And we hope to see more of it on the Island.”

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Chris Holtslag of VanIsle Wetlands installs a flow device at a beaver conflict site that will allow water to continue moving. (PHOTO COURTESY CITY OF PORT ALBERNI)
A flow device installed through a beaver dam on the Kitsuksis Dyke. (PHOTO COURTESY CITY OF PORT ALBERNI)

Elena Rardon

About the Author: Elena Rardon

I have worked with the Alberni Valley News since 2016.
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