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Beaver Dams a Constant Threat to Bellingham International Airport

September 2002

Cover Story

Beaver Dams a Constant Threat to Bellingham International Airport

by Dian McClurg

Dian McClurg is a journalism student at Western Washington University. She was an editor for The Western Front this spring and summer. Dian also writes for The Every Other Weekly.

Beavers are dangerous to the safety of pilots and airplane passengers.

Art Choat, director of aviation for the Port of Bellingham, said the Bellingham International Airport has battled beavers since the airport was constructed nearly 62 years ago.

“The beavers themselves do not pose a direct hazard to aviation at airports, rather it’s the flooding caused by beaver dams,” said Mike Linnell, the assistant state director for wildlife services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Flooded runways or fields full of water attract waterfowl. Flocks of ducks, geese, swans, herons and gulls are a serious threat to airplanes trying to land and take off from airports, Linnell said.

Beavers are a historical problem for Washington state, Linnell said. The creatures have recovered from near extinction brought on by trapping and habitat destruction, according to the U.S. Humane Society. Beavers are prolific. Younger generations move out into new territory creating dams and flooding timber areas.

Stream Flows Are Dammed

At the Bellingham airport, beavers are damming stream flows out of stormwater retention and detention ponds, Choat said. These man-made ponds were created to filter storm water as it runs off the impervious surfaces at the airport so the water is clean as it enters the local streams.

“Where those beavers are playing they’re blocking the flow of water to whatever stream is supposed to be fed,” Choat said. “That stream is used to a certain amount of water, and we have to keep it that way.”

Airports must work closely with the Department of Ecology to detain stormwater in order to provide water quality and enhance salmon habitat, Linnell said.

Choat said the port budgets between $4,000 and $5,000 per year to maintain the storm water ponds. The maintenance crew is in charge of maintaining the flow of water in the ponds, which often includes beaver control.

When beaver dams start clogging up that water flow, Choat said the maintenance crew goes in with a backhoe and breaks down the dams.

“It’s our job to keep the ponds continuing to function as they were designed,” he said. “We have to maintain the ponds. If we don’t, they [the beavers] flood the neighboring property.”

Control Methods Destructive to Beavers

Those floods are dangerous to air traffic as well as destructive to surrounding timber and property. But the methods for dealing with this nuisance wildlife can also be destructive for the beavers.

Law enforcement agents at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife deal with beaver trouble, district wildlife biologist Mike Davison said. Enforcement agents help people explore problem-solving methods, but if the other methods failed they could issue a kill permit.

“So few things are really practical,” Davison said. “You have to keep populations at lower levels because you’re never going to eliminate them.”

Linnell said any number of options are worth trying for solving beaver-related problems, but tearing down the dams is generally the least effective method without also removing the beavers themselves.

“If you remove a beaver dam, they will just rebuild it by the next day,” he said. “They are amazing animals.”

Choat said the airport is currently working with the WDFW and the USDA to deal with its beaver problem. He did not say if the airport had any future plans in mind beyond tearing down the dams.

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