This week, Ralph Sievert, the Minneapolis Park Board’s director of forestry, is answering a lot of voicemails about beavers.
That’s because last week, the board met (distantly) and approved a new wildlife management contract with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. It’s an unwieldly name for a government organization that, among other things, helps solve “conflicts” between people and wildlife.
Some of those conflicts, the board said, could include particularly aggressive urban coyotes, or maybe beavers doing beaver stuff in the wrong place at the wrong time. Commissioners gave the example of a few specimens that had been chewing up the trees in Sumner Field Park. Neighbors had called the Park Board’s forestry division to complain about the mess.
The people calling Sievert are concerned—naturally—for the welfare of local beavers and coyotes. The agreement contains language about possibly “kill[ing]” or even “shoot[ing]” the “offending animal” to prevent further damage. Fur Free Minneapolis placed an “Action Alert” post on its Facebook page and asked followers to call and email Council President Jono Cowgill to put a stop to it.
“Parks President Jono Cowgill has the power to stop this killing from start[ing] and END this killing contract immediately,” it said. It also suggested “non-target animals” could very easily be killed as well, including otters, mink, raccoons, outdoor cats, and off-leash dogs.
According to Sievert, you legally cannot shoot animals within city limits. That’s just language the USDA keeps in its contracts in case it needs to, for example, shoot a nuisance animal out in rural Montana. So that’s not going to happen.
There are no plans yet to kill any Minneapolis animals. Apparently, beaver activity at Sumner Field has calmed down this spring. Park staff think the pond water was probably a little too shallow for the beavers to comfortably winter there.
There haven’t been any catastrophes involving coyotes yet, either, although they’re a growing presence within city limits. Those were just some “examples,” Sievert says, of the type of situation that could merit the USDA’s attention.
There is also bad news for the beavers, and that’s that this contract, on a practical level, changes very little. The parks system already arranges for the killing of beavers on a semi-regular basis.
Beavers, like people, are hard to relocate against their will. They’re territorial, and will regularly fight other beavers to maintain control of lodges, so they’re sometimes easier to kill than move. Prior to this USDA deal, the parks board would contract with individual trappers for their problem beavers, paying them maybe a couple hundred dollars each time to go get rid of a nuisance lodger.
The most recent incident was in 2014, when there were three beavers nestled by Lake Hiawatha, and their combined activity was regularly flooding the parking lots of funeral homes and gas stations. They were trapped and killed, and their pelts were donated to an environmental education program.
Before that, there was one beaver trapped in North Mississippi Park in 2010, and another in 2003. So: It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.
“I understand people’s concerns,” Sievert says. “It’s not a pleasant thing to talk about.”
He says the point of switching over to a government contract is to make the whole thing more transparent. It allows the board to consult with wildlife experts on the best courses of action rather than just asking a trapper to deal with the problem.
The board will get a heads-up if an animal was selected for removal, and will only need to pay for services rendered. If beavers and coyotes don't pose any problems in the next three years, this contract will have cost them nothing. That was a bonus at a time when commissioners are leery of spending money that could go toward dealing with the fallout from the COVID-19 epidemic.