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‘Institutionally refusing to accept science’: Wisconsin DNR at center of lawsuit against beaver management program

Superior Bio-Conservancy files petition with intent to sue USDA, which partners with DNR, for widespread killing of otters, beavers and dams

beaver with willow branch
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (CC BY 2.0)

The conservation nonprofit Superior Bio-Conservancy is taking legal action against the federal Wildlife Services division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its alleged widespread killing of beavers, accidental otter killings and beaver dam destruction.

That division is contracted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for a beaver management program that spans 1,800 miles of streams to protect trout, according to Bob Boucher, the president of Superior Bio-Conservancy.

“We are suing because this beaver elimination program violates the public trust and is directly at odds with the (Wisconsin) DNR’s mission to protect and enhance our natural resources and our wildlife,” Boucher said.

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On June 22, Superior Bio-Conservancy alerted Wildlife Services and the DNR of its petition and notice of intent to sue the agency in federal court. The respondents have 60 days to correct wrongdoing. Should they fail to respond or act within that time frame, the Superior Bio-Conservancy will seek civil suit action.

The Superior Bio-Conservancy also included an expert review with more than 100 citations, with a request to revise the USDA’s 2013 environmental assessment.

A DNR spokesperson declined to comment on pending litigation.

The Milwaukee-based nonprofit said the division is destroying Wisconsin’s wetlands, weakening flood resiliency and exacerbating its biodiversity crisis. Through its beaver management program over the last decade, the division allegedly killed 28,141 beavers and destroyed 14,796 beaver dams through hand removal or explosives, the nonprofit said.

In addition to beavers, the nonprofit claims Wildlife Services killed 1,091 river otters and thousands of other species through indiscriminate trapping methods.

According to the state’s beaver removal laws, explosives cannot be used to kill or remove beaver but may be used to remove their structures, including dams and vacated lodges.

Beavers help reduce flood intensity, filter water and capture greenhouse gases, saving millions of dollars in services, a recent study by researchers from the University of Helsinki found. And their dams are described as “among the most biologically-productive ecosystems in the world, comparable to coral reefs and rainforests.”

“The Wisconsin DNR, by funding this, is actually the biggest destroyer of wildlife and wetlands in Wisconsin,” Boucher said.

Superior Bio-Conservancy is arguing the DNR anticipated and cited they would only kill 1,066 beavers each year. Through open records requests, the nonprofit found they killed three times that figure in 2022.

Hannah Malicky, the executive administrative assistant with Superior Bio-Conservancy, said the DNR halted beaver population counts in 2014, complicating their efforts to get an accurate assessment of the damage at stake. And she said the DNR referenced trout stream restoration studies to justify their killings that don’t extend into the 2000s, save for internal documentation that was not peer-reviewed.

Boucher described a “completely unregulated” system without tagging.

“We’ve been talking to them for years about this, trying to get them to modify it, but they’ve been institutionally refusing to accept science,” Boucher said. That left the group with no other option but to signal their intent to sue.

But not all wildlife experts agree with Superior Bio-Conservancy’s stance.

David Drake, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and Extension wildlife specialist, teaches a class on wildlife damage management. He said that the beaver population is not at risk of being endangered or threatened. Rather, he said, beavers, which are a rodent species like mice or rats, breed regularly.

“The beaver population is healthy in the state of Wisconsin, as it is throughout the United States. And I think the management is justified and I think it’s responsible and I think it’s ethical and professional,” Drake said.

He added that wildlife biologists evaluate situations for specific locations and make a decision.

“It’s not like any time beavers are on the landscape, that people are out there trapping them to mitigate the damage,” he said, adding each situation is inspected and evaluated. And in situations where they flood crops, timberland and roadways, the damage needs to be managed.

“In many places, the beaver populations are at least stable if not increasing, and as beaver populations are increasing, you’ll see increasing damage situations as well,” Drake said.

Boucher of Superior Bio-Conservancy said the group is not advocating for outlawing trapping, but to manage the beaver population in an intelligent way that benefits biodiversity and water quality.

“(The DNR has) admitted in internal correspondence that this is a folly, and that they’re overkilling. They still haven’t admitted that the beaver-trout relationship is actually a beneficial one, not a negative one,” Boucher said.

“And hopefully, with the court action, they’ll be forced to turn around and do their job correctly, which is actually protect the resources of the state,” he continued.