For a decade and a half, everything was just great for those taking a leisurely stroll at the north end of Golden Gardens Park.
A path led to two tranquil small ponds that had been dug out in 1995, fed by surface drainage and hillside water. The ponds were full of birds and surrounded by trees planted by volunteers.
You could stand on a footbridge between the ponds and gaze out onto this peaceful preserve.
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Then two or three years ago arrived one beaver, or maybe it’s up to a dozen beavers — depending on which irate leisurely stroller you talk to.
Yes, beavers may look cuter with their flat tails, but they are
North America’s largest rodents, with adults averaging 3 feet in length and 40 pounds.
The parks department says their tree cutting is just part of nature. It’s not going to relocate the beavers.
That means it’s in a continuous campaign against the beavers as the small dam they built, if left unchecked, raises the water level and floods the footbridge.
Parks workers remove sticks from the top of the dam.
But a beaver is a ferocious worker and can mow down a lot of wood.
Within a week, the dam is back to its original level.
Sticking a drain pipe under the dam didn’t work because it kept getting clogged with silt.
Another problem with the pipe is that beavers are acute listeners.
“It would make a loud rushing noise that would cue the beaver to rebuild the dam,” says Barbara DeCaro, parks’ resource-conservation coordinator.
Regular visitors say the ponds look like a tornado blasted through. Trees are fallen over, with some still standing but barely so, as they’ve been chewed almost to the core.
“You should have seen how it used to be — just an exquisite little hideaway,” says one of the regulars, Linda Peterson, 66, who grew up in Ballard. “Now the beavers have taken down almost all the trees. They’ve ruined the whole place.”
Beavers are nocturnal animals, and Seattle Parks says it has spotted only one.
Another regular, Rick Burley, 62, a retired truck driver who lives on Magnolia, says there have to be more beavers than one.
“How fast they’re rebuilding the dam and chopping down trees, I think there is more than a dozen,” he says.
Burley is a bird watcher.
“All these migratory birds used to come through. The first one I remember that quit coming back was a red-winged blackbird. Then all kinds of other birds quit coming back. Warblers, all kinds of sparrows. They’d use the shrubbery around the ponds, and it’s pretty much gone.”
Burley says he understands that this is a natural habitat for beavers.
“I’m not a beaver hater,” says Burley. “But I don’t understand why they’re protected. They’re like rats. They multiply pretty fast. Why can’t they trap and relocate them, and save the birds?”
Only half in jest, Linda Peterson says about the beavers, “Relocate them to Green Lake. Let them figure it out.”
One visitor says there has been talk of trapping and killing them.
Beavers are not a protected species in the sense that bald eagles are.
The beaver is classified as a fur bearer, and a license is required to trap or shoot one. It also is unlawful to trap a beaver and release it elsewhere without a permit. You can’t touch a beaver dam without a permit from the state to “modify” it.
Seattle Parks says it knows very well the locals are upset.
Says DeCaro, “We’ve recently had a string of people come to us and ask, ‘What’s going on at Golden Gardens?’ What we’ve decided to do is work on how to manage the beavers. They’ve been here before Europeans. It’s their habitat.”
Beavers were common enough that Ballard High School has nicknamed itself the Beavers, and they once were around the lumber mills at Salmon Bay.
Until they were almost driven to extinction by trappers and hunters, an estimated 60 million to 400 million beavers lived in much of North America, says a paper by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Their populations now are on the upswing.
Anyway, says DeCaro, removing the beaver or beavers from the pond might work only temporarily.
“If the beavers came here in the first place, it’s more than likely more beavers will come,” she says wildlife experts have told her.
Beavers can travel 10 miles by land and water to find a new home, says professor emeritus Robert Naiman, of the University of Washington’s Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences, and a beaver expert.
One likely route for that first beaver that arrived at Shilshole Bay was from Lake Washington via the Ship Canal.
Naiman says beavers mark their territory with urine. And, he says, if a boy beaver was the first arrival, a girl beaver might smell that scent and come take a look.
Beavers are entirely vegetarian and like a place such as the Golden Gardens ponds with all its trees.
Their front teeth are incisors that continually grow. They have to continuously eat wood to wear them down.
“Otherwise, that tooth will come back and actually penetrate the skull of the beaver,” says Naiman.
DeCaro says Seattle Parks might decide to put chicken wire around some of the trees, and maybe plant trees that beavers don’t like to eat.
They like willows, poplars and cottonwoods because of those trees’ high nutritional content. They don’t like fir trees because they contain stuff like bitter-tasting tannins.
Naiman also says the city could leave willow cuttings for the beavers, who then might decide to skip cutting trees.
Of course, as a very last resort, the city could always introduce what used to be one of the worst predators for beavers, until their own populations were decimated.
“They’ll do just about anything to get to a beaver,” says Naiman. “But I don’t think that’d go over really well.”
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @ErikLacitis