Pat Brook has nothing against beavers, but Hurricane Katrina forced his hand 

Sidestepping shreds of toilet paper and what appears to be part of a discarded condom, Pat Brook navigates the riverbank below the California Street footbridge looking for sign. It's not hard to find—the jagged stumps of nibbled-off branches, the dark pockets and depressions visible along the far waterline. All seem to bolster Brook's assertion that the in-town stretches of the Clark Fork are teeming with beaver. A manila envelope back in his office at Missoula's Wastewater Division (where he works as collections operations and maintenance manager) contains all manner of research on the species. Up until six years ago, though, Brook says, he'd never given beaver a second thought.

"Why would I?"

The answer is Hurricane Katrina. After New Orleans' levees failed in 2005, FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began reevaluating other levees across the country, identifying deficiencies and tasking local officials with fixing them. When Missoula's time came in 2011, the feds found that beavers were burrowing into a portion of the levee stretching from California Street to Russell. Their directive: Get rid of the beavers. And so, over the past six years, Brook has trapped 21 beavers near the California Street footbridge with the help of Dave Wallace, a Kila-based private contractor who specializes in wildlife control and removal.

"Let's face it, you're right on a primary corridor there," Wallace says. "Basically, trapping is just preventative maintenance."

Even so, Brook hates to call what they do trapping. It's a practice he doesn't support. "I mean, what's the word I'm looking for? Barbaric?" From day one, he's bucked the advice he says he received from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to simply kill the critters. Instead, he's insisted on releasing the captured beavers at either Kelly Island or Fort Missoula, the two sites that FWP, which issues his permits, instructed him to use for relocation. Keeping the beavers alive carries an additional $50-per-beaver charge, and Wallace says Missoula is "the only place [in the state] where that's carried out." Brook sees it as money well spent.

"It sucks, but I gotta do it," he says. "There's a reason I'm here doing it, but I'd rather leave them alone." According to Brook, the city's bill for beaver relocation since 2011 totals $15,023.03.

click to enlarge For the past six years, the Missoula Wastewater Division’s Pat Brook has been trapping and relocating beaver along the California Street levee. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • For the past six years, the Missoula Wastewater Division’s Pat Brook has been trapping and relocating beaver along the California Street levee.

Beavers are a common enough problem in floodplain management that they've earned prominent mention in the Army Corps' levee owner's manual. Left unmitigated, their burrows can contribute to the erosion of streambanks and levees, particularly during high-water events. The California Street levee protects a swath of land from Sherwood Street to the Clark Fork that includes the Greyhound bus station, Blue Ribbon Auto and the Sherwood trailer court. Brook says that any deficiency in the levee could put residents and businesses in that area—identified by FEMA floodplain maps as having "reduced flood risk"on the hook for federal flood insurance.

City officials haven't exactly been keen to discuss their approach to the beaver problem, fearful of how the trapping might play with the public. In fact, Brook found himself at the center of a dust-up in early April after two women confronted Wallace while he was setting cages. Brook says the situation escalated rapidly, drawing in both Missoula police and FWP. Brook didn't hear about the incident until later, at which point rumors that the city was paying to trap, kill and skin beaver were already swirling. He's sensitive to the concern, especially given his own anti-trapping leanings. But with a mandate from FEMA to protect the levee, he thinks relocation is the best—if not the only—option.

"There's people everywhere," Brook says of the riverbanks around California Street. "There's a lot of things I can't do. I don't want to hurt a kid, I don't want to hurt a dog, and that's what's going to happen if you come up with these other methods that have been tried in other places, like electrified wire."

The April incident has made increased public awareness inevitable. So Brook is now crafting a new plan, one that calls for installing large beaver-resistant rocks, or rip-rap, along the threatened stretch of levee. The project will have "a hefty price-tag," he says, and would have to get the OK not just from city administrators, but from the feds as well.

"I don't know if the Army Corps of Engineers is going to allow it, if FEMA is going to allow me to do this for a long-term solution or not. I do know, hey, I can always fall back on catch and relocate."

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