23 comments on “Wisconsin Wildlife Services Removes 100’s of Beaver Dams Each Year, Many by Explosives

  1. For what it’s worth, I would go with letting it be as in your #3 solution and letting nature take it’s course. It is a proven thing that when humans get their hands on the naturally evolving environment they always screw it up even more. Cass

    • That’s where we’re leaning, too. We just can’t think of very many short-term mitigations like this that haven’t ended up proving to be a waste of time, money and effort in the long run – and detrimental to the overall health of the environment. It wasn’t so long ago that Americans were going all over the country building dams to “improve” the environment. Most of that worked out notoriously poorly.

  2. Wisconsin’s beaver dam policy reminds me of a Naval Sea Systems Command policy from the 1990’s: “Pull up the tree to see how the roots are growing.”

    • Thanks for the laugh! Apparently a few years in Michigan, the state department of environmental regulations issued a strongly-worded citation along with a threat of a $10,000 per day fine for an “unauthorized” dam some guy had supposedly built on his property. Turned out the state bureaucrats who issued the citation had never seen a beaver dam and thought the landowner had built the dam “out of wood and debris.”

  3. A well-researched, thoughtful analysis. I’ve observed that human “management” of other species tends to be done through a filter of commodification: What’s most valuable to us (usually in the short term)? We would do well to manage our own population with the same vigor.

    Beautiful blog; thanks for stopping by mine and giving me the chance to find yours.

    • Thanks Cate. Part of what makes this case in Wisconsin appear to be so disturbing is that all the entities involved should be looking at the overall health of the ecosystem – not just trout fishing. We’re trying to figure out how this one-species-for-the-benefit-of-humans management emphasis is any different from slashing and burning a forest in order to “enhance habitat for cows.”

  4. Thanks for shedding light on this. I had no idea! It’s always sad to me when people destroy natural habitats because they are simply inconvenient (whether true or not). What happens when human populations become inconvenient? Good post!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Trish. Your question about “what happens to human populations” is one we hope people will think about. A number of sources are speculating that even as Wisconsin is over-using it’s ground water resources, these beaver dams could be part of the solution to help restore that groundwater.

  5. Hi Jack;

    How are you and Barb doing? Sounds like having a blast in Alaska. Here in CA I’ve been pushing the relocation of beavers instead of depredation permits being issued. TU and others are working on/with CDF&W to alter their policy on this.

    Obviously, the drought has caused a huge issue for us in CA: How to keep water in the streams and meadows throughout the dry summer months. Beaver dams hit the mark squarely by not only holding back the flow downstream; dams cool the water within the dam by allowing it to percolate into the subterranean natural flow and resurface after it’s been cooled, and what’s left in the ground recharges some of our depleted groundwater supply. The dams provide a nursery for the young fish and also allow the holdovers to grow to trophy size. The negative side of beaver dams failing can be addressed if managed properly. Funding for maintenance seems to be the big issue here.

    I’ve had speakers (at our State Council meeting and one coming up at our Chapter meeting in Oct.) presenting the positive side of beavers as they relate to a more productive fishery and am working on a webinar by NOAA to be presented in the near future. You’ll both get a heads up when that happens. In the meantime, I’m cc’ing some folks who may want to engage in your research and discussions. If you want to set up a blog page to coordinate all interested folks that may not be a bad idea. Not sure how you do that, just an idea. Will keep in touch on this….Thanks..John

    John Sikora

    El Dorado Chapter of Trout Unlimited

    Special Projects Coordinator


    (916) 502-2433

    • Hi John, Good to hear from you. We are currently in Mongolia and enjoying life here, though we miss Alaska.
      Thanks for your insights on this issue and for providing a perspective from another TU chapter in another state. For all the reasons you mention and more, we’re having a tough time understanding Wisconsin’s policy on beaver dam removal except to conclude that it seems to suffer from both tunnel vision (creating a policy to benefit just one species at the expense of a plethora of others) and short-sightedness (what is best for the long-term health of these streams, Wisconsin’s underground aquifers, and species diversity.
      Thanks for the suggesting regarding reaching out to others who may be interested in/knowledgeable about this matter.
      Jack & Barbra

  6. Nicely done. I applaud your digging into the details. It often happens that people blame animals for conditions that humans are responsible for. Here in the Pacific Northwest US Fish and Wildlife are killing cormorants and harassing sea lions to save salmon that we have endangered. Shooting barred owls (that we likely facilitated) that are about to out-compete and prey on endangered (oh- us again!) spotted owls.

    Perhaps there are some interest groups in the region like Audubon, the Leopold Foundation in Wisconsin, or American Rivers that could start some education and advocacy?

    • Thanks for commenting, Taylor. I (Jack) lived in Astoria, Oregon for a number of years and became very interested in salmon management issues while there. There seem to be a number of parallels between Wisconsin’s management of brook trout and the Northwest’s management of salmon, starting with the hyper-focus on one species or species group (Brook trout in Wisconsin, Onchorhynchid salmon and trout in the Northwest) at the expense of other species. Just as brookies co-evolved with beavers, West Coast salmon co-evolved with the very terns, cormorants and sea lions humans are now blaming for the demise of these species. One gets the impression that some of the “wildlife management specialists” won’t be satisfied until they’ve reduced biodiversity to about 10 animals – the ones we eat, and the one’s we keep as pets.

  7. You guys were right. I am interested. And, as you so rightly point out, It’s complicated. I will do my best to not make this a novel, for I have some Thoughts. I will likely fail.

    I, personally, am of the Let Nature Take Its Course school of thought, and think many trout fishers here are a bunch of whiners. There are a gazillion trout streams in the western/southwestern portion of the state, where the streams tend to be in small, narrow valleys, and where there are beaver, but fewer of them. The thing is, many of these streams are silting in for reasons related to agriculture, and I ain’t hearing much of a peep about it. Or if there are peeps, they are quickly made mum, because honestly, this is the Midwest, and Corn and Soy rule the roost. And in WI, dairy cattle are a close third. No one is even suggesting destroying farm fields or cow pasture.

    The WIDNR has never been known to have great priorities, to be honest. Setting beaver dams and trout streams aside momentarily, let’s look at the deer population. I’ve mentioned in my posts that in the years preceding the 2014 season, there were a lot of tags up. 3 for archery (2 anterless, 1 buck), 3 for gun (ditto) with bonus tags a mere $3. Ostensibly, to control the population and mitigate the spread of CWD (chronic wasting disease). However, insurance companies also lobby here to keep deer populations down to cut down on deer-car accidents. http://www.jsonline.com/sports/outdoors/wisconsin-deer-kill-lowest-in-30-years-b99401459z1-284534621.html

    Much like the individual goals re: maintaining trout streams, none of these goals in and of themselves are necessarily bad. However, taken in concert? I mean, doing all of the goals at once leads to, you know, rock-bottom deer populations and taking out dams with dynamite.

    Now, about the beaver population itself. There are a lot of them. Enough that there are no bag limits statewide on beaver for trappers, they can be trapped without license by landowners, as well as shot. The incentive for trappers is the price we can get for the furs, and beaver was down, at least this past season. Coyote, fox, and even muskrat were way higher, and this is driven by demand in places like Siberia and, well, Mongolia. Much of the fur used in these places actually comes from the US. I’m fine with trapping, as well as humans “controlling” the populations of given species. We are, sadly, part of the ecosystem. It’s part of the deal, such as it is. I will, however, nitpick the reasons for the control.

    Note- Wisconsin, particularly northern Wisconsin, *has* wolves (approx 800 in 2011, now many more http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/wolf/facts.html ) ( http://www.outdoornews.com/June-2015/Wisconsin-wolf-numbers-continue-to-climb/ ). And coyotes, and foxes, and bear, and hawks, and eagles, and plenty of predators in addition to a higher proportion of the human population that traps. Not to mention expanding human habitation endangering their habitat The beavers are probably being pretty well controlled within biological parameters, and it’s not as if landowners (those usually cited as having their land flooded) and municipalities have no recourse. It just is “ruining” the streams these people like to chase trout in.

    Here’s the thing- Wisconsin is just. lousy. with water. Streams, lakes, rivers. Lakes Michigan and Superior. Both Great Lakes host lake trout and several salmon species. There are lots of trout streams everywhere. Plus, lakes everywhere you look, especially up north. They don’t HAVE to only fish for brookies. There’s muskie, pike, bass, panfish, walleye, you name it. Trout have prestige, presumably due to rarity of their habitat, and the tags and corresponding equipment cost more.

    I’ll also note, my admittedly limited and biased observations as an outsider to one particular part of N WI (the northeast corner up near the UP). This is the reddest red part of the state. I will tell you right now that they are not really concerned with warming water temperatures due to rising global temps. Not that they *could* walk too many places- it is isolated up there, and the ones I know would rather stick their fingers in an electrical outlet than move to say, Madison or Milwaukee (we get pity and headshakes for living here), or, Maude forbid, Chicago. Neither are many of them really concerned about biodiversity. It is a Man-As-Master-Of-His-Domain kind of a place- Matt’s grandad has busted up dams himself. And you should hear their hatred for wolves. Often, these kinds of holistically better solutions are seen as impositions from liberal urban eggheads who don’t REALLY know the land, etc etc.

    • Amber, much appreciation for your thoughtful read and reply. Everything you said jibes with what we know about Wisconsin in general and the northern parts in particular. There’s lots of water, there’s lots of good fishing, the predators are there and before people point irony-laced fingers at wild animals for messing up wild places, they might want to look at agriculture, urbanization, logging and other human-driven impacts first. In researching this article, we came across a quote by Aldo Leopold warning against managing the environment through the lens of special interest groups (such as hunters and fisherman) and he specifically warned against funding state wildlife departments through hunting and fishing license fees; he believed funding should come from a revenue base that includes all citizens, so that all citizens have a voice and a stake in these matters.
      Like you, we’re hunters and anglers, and we support trapping… but we emphatically do not want the DNR managing resources solely for whitetails and brook trout, gerrymandering the “scientific evidence” along the way to justify expanding the populations of species that fill the wallets of wildlife agencies while ignoring, “controlling” or extirpating others. And yet, in state after state, this is more or less what happens.
      This – and many similar matters – seem to be reducible to this: We would like to see people move away from a hyperfocus on their preferred, boutique species (such as brookies on the very southern edge of their viable range) and take a broader view of what is best for the whole environment.

      • Aldo Leopold lived here. Taught at my university, and lived just up in Baraboo. Sadly, since DNRs, especially ours, are funded by tag sales, etc, hunters and anglers here are the head honchos. This provides some neat benefits to us as hunters, such as the fact that anti hunters (Madison has them) can’t legally harass us as protest, or easements for access, and lots of public land. However, it does give our wildlife management tunnel vision, and many, many hunters could do with the nuance of thought that comes with having to defend their ideas, as well as being introduced to the idea that sometimes they need to shut up and listen to other people. Particularly up north.

        Most of the reason folk hate wolves is because wolves kill deer, and wolves are still listed and thus can’t (any longer- brief 2014 season on them) be killed themselves. Never mind that one of the main reasons cited for hunting deer in the numbers we do is to control their population because we took out their natural predators. Which turns into pretty circular logic once we re-establish some small groups of predators, because then people who got used to huge deer harvests want to reduce the number of wolves to make the deer population surge in an area so they can then harvest the deer to control the population because we got rid of their biggest natural predator. Rinse and repeat.

        My opinion is that a lot of attitudes about the superiority of (a certain kind of) man are linked to our mistreatment of other humans, animals, and the planet. I often wonder what our world would look like if we could begin to dismantle that.

        • Hi Amber. Barbra and I were talking just yesterday about the hypocrisy you describe among many hunters regarding wolves (and mountain lions). Both of those species have been extirpated in the East, in large part because… wait for it… they are deer-killers. Never mind all the combined practices humans were engaging in that were driving down deer populations in decades past. And out in Idaho, they have their “wolf culls” to keep elk harvests high for hunters.
          What troubles us is that these attitudes and practices among hunters are part of what turns off the non-hunting public toward hunting. And, in our view, you and Leopold are correct: wildlife decisions should be made with all stakeholders in mind, not just license-purchasing anglers and hunters. Whether we’re talking about wolf culls in Idaho, reactionary attitudes towards predators of all descriptions among many hunters in most states, or blowing up beaver dams to create trout fishing opportunities for some anglers, the logic of the DNR and the hunters and anglers taking part in this kind of thinking does deserve to be scrutinized and challenged by the larger public.
          The other thing is this, as Trout Unlimited members, when the Wolf Creek, Wisconsin, chapter of TU engages in and supports this kind of behavior, all TU members potentially get painted with that brush.

  8. I must wonder about the idea that the brookies may not do as well with beaver dams as without. First, surface water temperatures do increase, however, once the ponds acheive a certain depth (depending upon lattitude), the bottom of the ponds are cooler. This coolerwater discharges downstream through upwelling currents known as hyperheic flow, which can keep the stream cooler.

    Other than some studies that were done in the 1970s and without complelling statisitical results, I am unaware of a scientific study that demonstrates that beaver negatively affect brook trout populations.

    Finally, during a recent public comment period that allows WS to expand their beaver extermination policies, some Wisconsin trappers reported that beaver had been completely exterminated from several drainages in Northern Wisconsin, vitually eliminating their State right to harvest beaver.

    My belief is that Wildlife Services has become an agency desparate to find a valid mission; they must justify huge budgets and over-amplify signficantly the need to exterminate many speices, many of them endangered or taken incidentally.

    One prudent course is to contact Wisconsin’s US Senators and Representatives and request they defund Wildlife Services.

    Mike Settell
    Exectutive Director
    Watershed Guardians, Inc.

    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for your insights. We received an email from a well-know biologist who made a similar observation about the positive cooling effect beaver dams have on downstream upwelling, which cools water. The river in question provides critical spawning habitat for lake sturgeon in its lower reaches, and these sturgeon very likely depend on that upwelling for successful spawning.

      The one longitudinal study I’m aware of that proponents of beaver extermination cite appears to be so thoroughly flawed it should be discarded. The researchers didn’t even attempt to create controls. So, between the beginning of the study and its end, basic trout stocking and trout harvesting practices changed. Toward the end, larger, hardier trout were being stocked; meanwhile, the harvest limit was reduced. At the end of the study, the researchers reported more trout biomass in the stream, and concluded that it was because beaver dams had been removed!?!

      We appreciate your interest in this issue. Please feel free to share this article with others.
      Jack Donachy

  9. Hello Barbara and Jack. I would like to weigh in on the beaver and brook trout issue. I am the guy who supervises the USDA-Wildlife Services program in northern Wisconsin covered in the news story about trout habitat and beaver dam removal. The goal of my comments is to provide some background information so that your website followers can make informed decisions. The stream shown in the news story was the Little Deerskin River, not the Wolf River. The Little Deerskin is a cold water tributary to the Deerskin River, one of northern Wisconsin’s best trout streams. As your piece states, to survive and reproduce brook trout have a very narrow range of habitat requirements – cold, free-flowing water and gravel stream beds. In fact, brook trout are seen as an indicator species where their presence and population health indicates high quality cold water ecosystems.
    I fully agree that beaver are amazing animals and beaver ponds provide a wealth of benefits for many species. Beaver are doing very well these days. With their high reproductive rate, great adaptability, and ability to alter the environment to improve the quality of their habitat, they occur in every state from Florida to Alaska and number in the millions in North America. No doubt beaver and beaver dams in the intermountain west, such as the British Columbia stream shown on this website, can have positive dynamics but the situation in Wisconsin is quite different. Most northern Wisconsin trout streams are small, narrow and have a low to moderate gradient, which means a beaver dam system floods hundreds acres of low land, basically inundating the original stream channel. Consequently, dams on these systems may have a much greater impact on flow than a dam in the west where the gradient is much higher (flow is aided by elevation). So this very real impact on stream flow can result in warmer water, increased siltation and turbidity, and actual water chemistry changes. These impacts are documented by DNR fisheries biologists. DNR also has documented significant increases in trout numbers due to beaver management efforts. While beaver and brook trout may have occurred in the same North American regions for millennia, it does not mean trout have any evolutionary adaptations to survive in warm water environments or to overcome the blockage of a beaver dammed stream.
    Also, cold water stream ecosystems are not just about brook trout, they can be very complex systems rich in species diversity. A study in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association looked at species diversity in headwater streams (trout streams in Wisconsin are typically headwaters to larger systems) and found that headwater streams are extremely important for the entire system’s biodiversity. They often provide refuge for many species from higher temperatures, flooding, and predators. They provide habitat for many unique species, including insects, mollusks, crustaceans, amphibians and fish. Unfortunately, these cold water systems are declining in the United States and in many areas the sustainability of native brook trout populations are in jeopardy. Hudy et al. reported in 2008 that 68% of brook trout habitat in the eastern U.S. (representing 70% of the U.S. portion of native brook trout range) surveyed in their study was reduced or degraded. True, beaver are not the primary issue across the region – land use changes, habitat fragmentation and exotic species are key factors. However, northern Wisconsin is graced with some of the best trout streams in the eastern U.S. and beaver dams do have a negative impact here. This program is not about controlling beaver but rather about preserving free flowing cold water streams. Beaver are given free rein on 85% of Wisconsin’s 10,000 miles of designated trout streams (plus the all of Wisconsin’s lakes ponds and warm water streams). Wildlife Services work is carried out on only 15% (1,500 miles) of the highest quality trout streams where state and federal fisheries biologists make maintaining free flowing cold water ecosystems a management priority.

    Our program has little impact on the viability of the state’s beaver population, which is estimated to be over 50,000 just in the northern part of the state. Work is conducted in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the state’s new beaver management plan. The state just completed a multi-year process to develop this plan, which included a task force composed of over 20 stakeholders and numerous public meetings. Check it out at:
    This information may not change any attitudes about Wisconsin’s beaver and cold water ecosystems but I do appreciate the opportunity to post on your website.

    • Hi Robert,
      Thanks for taking the time to write and provide the correction, additional perspective and further insight into this issue. What we’re coming to understand is that the issue in Wisconsin is not so much about beavers dams per se, but beaver dams in already marginal trout habitat.
      As the climate continues to warm and habitats change, wildlife officers and other environmental stakeholders will be faced with difficult decisions. Because anglers have a tradition of taking a lead role in environmental issues, and because revenue from fishing license sales represent a substantial portion of funding for state wildlife offices, trout will be a centerpiece species as many of these challenges are grappled with.
      An emerging question is this: Should environmental policy be based on preserving species that have become marginalized due to changing habitat, or should policy be more broadly focused on ensuring the overall health of the environment so that natural processes of natural selection, adaptation and evolution can take place?
      Muddying these issues is the fact that, according to a 2013 report by the Wisconsin Legislature, “The primary source of revenue to the fish and wildlife account is the fees charged for hunting, fishing and special licenses and stamps.”
      This narrow revenue base can’t help but lead to a narrower perspective than we (and the people in these agencies) might hope for.
      Robert, thanks again for writing. As beaver populations in Pennsylvania (my home state) and other locales in the East where they were once extirpated continue to grow, it will be interesting to see what types of management strategies are set forth. And if localized eradication of beavers proves to be the short-term solution we suspect it is, it will also be interesting to see how trout fisherman – not just in Wisconsin but in other states – adjust to diminished opportunities to pursue their favorite species.

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