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Thursday, August 24, 2006 - Page updated at 11:30 AM

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Meadowbrook Pond: A beaver playground

Special to The Seattle Times

"This is the Disney World of beavers," said Bob Spencer, creek steward coordinator for Seattle Public Utilities, as he looked out over Meadowbrook Pond in Northeast Seattle. Fuzzy mallard ducklings and great blue herons were playing second fiddle to the obvious star attractions: several of North America's largest rodents entertaining an enthusiastic crowd of visitors.

"Beaver! Beaver! Beaver!" three kids shouted in unison to their dad who hurried over to watch a large furry brown head tote a leafy branch to the edge of the lodge.

"These hip, urban beavers have kind of gone condo," Spencer said, pointing out their home, a jumble of materials ingeniously supported by the bridge turned wildlife viewing platform, which spans this detention pond. A large dent in the handrail shows where a broken alder located midway across the water fell under their sturdy front teeth.

The lodge is constructed of mud, rocks, sticks and logs — with telltale gnawed pointy ends. Built for the aquatic life, beavers have valves to keep water out of their ears and noses , and protective eye membranes act as built-in swim goggles. Their lips can seal behind their front teeth to make it easier to swim with branches and eat while submerged.

Beaver identification


The differences: Beavers, muskrats and nutria are aquatic rodents roaming Seattle waterways. Here's how to tell them apart:

• Beavers, the largest of the three, can reach 3 to 4 feet in length with broad, flat tails that don't show when they're swimming.

• Muskrats are much smaller (16-24 inches from nose to tail), with thin, vertically flattened tails. They hold their tails out of the water or swish them back and forth as they swim.

• Nutria, non-native species introduced from South America, have long, scaly, rounded tails which snake behind them as they swim or curve up out of the water behind them. They have large, orange-tinted front teeth like a beaver, but their bodies are smaller, averaging about 2 feet.

For more details and photos, visit the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's helpful Living with Wildlife series on the Web, http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/living/index.htm.

Kathryn True

The kids were thrilled when the beaver stopped a few feet away and began to eat the branch like we eat corn on the cob, unconcerned by a continuous flow of humans, strollers and dogs.

They love to entertain

Meadowbrook is home to the most people-accessible beaver lodge in the city — and the animals here almost seem to ham it up for their two-legged fans. Unbeknownst to many city-dwellers, beavers are staking claims across Seattle, with active families in Portage Bay, Lake Union, Lake Washington, the ship canal, all along Thornton Creek in North Seattle and, most recently, at Longfellow Creek in West Seattle.

Prized for their thick fur coats, beavers were trapped out of much of their range in the late 1800s. A decline in demand for pelts coupled with improved wildlife management practices led to an impressive comeback.

Since the anti-trapping Initiative 713 passed in 2000, fewer beavers are being legally killed in Washington. Though there are no population records, state biologists guess their numbers are rising. According to Sean Carrell, problem-wildlife coordinator for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, beavers hold the dubious distinction for most-requested special trapping permit. Issued permits have increased from 180 in 2001 to 500 last year.

"They have an average of four to six kits a year, and those babies travel up to 10 miles to find new territory," explained Spencer, whose job working with urban creeks has made him an accidental beaver spokesperson. "I'm not a beaver biologist, but if you do good things for streams you do good things for beaver and vice versa."

Creek steward Joanne Ishisaka, who has volunteered along Thornton Creek in Northeast Seattle for 16 years, spotted her first beaver about eight years ago.

If you go


Watch and learn about beavers

Where

Meadowbrook Detention Pond is located at the corner of 35th Avenue Northeast between Northeast 105th Street and Northeast 110th Street, across from the Meadowbrook Community Center, 206-684-7522.

Walk underground to see inside a live beaver lodge at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Eatonville (Pierce County), where only a glass window separates you from the interior of their home, 360-832-6117, www.nwtrek.org.

Traveler's tip

Best times to see beavers: dawn and an hour before dusk, spring, summer and fall.

More information

Creek Stewards, 206-684-4163, or enter "Creek Steward" at www.seattle.gov, offers information about beavers and other wildlife, with details on adopting a section of a beaver stream by volunteering on a one-time or regular basis to improve and protect Seattle's waterways. View photos and descriptions of sites available for adoption online.

Learn how to protect your trees and deal with dams at this Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife Web site: http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/living/
beavers.htm
.

"For urban beavers, living here is pretty easy because people put out food for them," she said wryly. "They plant all those delicious fruit trees."

Like thieves in the night, nocturnal beavers roam the waterways looking for the tastiest, most accessible morsels. Ishisaka told of a Lake Washington homeowner who called the police after a "vandal" took down her brand new curly willow trees. The officer was halfway through the police report before a neighbor pointed out teeth marks on the trees.

Ungainly on land, beavers prefer food that's easy to harvest close to the stream, but they will travel overland for their favorites. Their incisors never stop growing, so it's a matter of survival that they keep on chewing.

Left with the stump of an heirloom tree, it's understandable that some people's first response is to trap the animal — or worse. But according to wildlife biologist Russell Link, this is not the best solution. "Beavers seldom survive relocation," he said. "They will try and move back and can get killed by predators or hit by cars in the process."

"Even if that beaver is gone, the next beaver is coming up the creek," Spencer added.

Two proven ways to live harmoniously with beavers are to plant foods they like in a "sacrifice area" and use fencing wire to protect vulnerable trees and shrubs. (For information on thwarting beaver damage, visit the Web site listed at right.)

Quick work

West Seattle resident Thalia Ryer went away one weekend in 2004 and returned home to a beaver dam in her backyard. "At first I was worried, but I learned there are a lot of ways you can live with them," she said. "I wish we could shift our attitude about treating them as pests. There's another way to look at it — they create amazing habitat for other animals."

Ryer enjoyed watching the wildlife that made the beaver pond home, including wood ducks, trout, crawdads, kingfishers, great blue herons and river otters. Unfortunately, a neighbor's complaints resulted in the dam being removed. The beavers found a more acceptable spot to build on city property a half-mile away.

"I really miss them," Ryer said. "They have made so many adaptations because their habitat has been affected by us; I think we can make some adaptations to accommodate them."

Spencer has found that, like Ryer, even those with beavers in their backyards are excited to be living among them: "Seattleites regard having beavers back as a sign that something is getting better."

Kathryn True is a freelance writer who lives on Vashon Island.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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