“The whole idea is to seed the watershed in high-quality areas where colonies will persist and crank out lots of baby beavers, sending out offspring and repopulating the watershed,” Dittbrenner explains. “That’s the really important assumption about what’s going to happen.”
The beaver now safely ensconced in the pickup, Alves and Bailey drive back to the nearby Tulalip Reservation to examine their bucktoothed prize. The heart of the Tulalip Beaver Project is the tribe’s fish hatchery, a compound of pools and pens that pumps out 11 million chinook, coho, and chum salmon fry each year. When they’re not holding salmon, the gnaw-proof concrete walls and flowing water within the hatchery’s raceways also make them perfect beaver enclosures.
At the hatchery, Alves and Bailey swiftly process their ward. They place the trap on a scale, which registers the creature’s weight at around 30 pounds—a juvenile, Bailey says—snip a hair sample, and staple color-coded tags in the animal’s ears for future identification: white in the left, yellow in the right. Although the biologists handle him as tenderly as possible, the beaver doesn’t enjoy the poking and prodding, and begins to chatter his teeth as though he were cold—another sign of stress.
Once he’s had a few minutes to calm down, Alves and Bailey usher the beaver into a cloth sack, with only his withers exposed, for the most sensitive step: sexing. Because even males possess internal genitalia, conclusively determining a beaver’s sex can’t be done visually; instead, it requires some serious olfactory skills. Alves presses on the beaver’s belly, feeling for his anal glands—nubbins of flesh whose secretions beavers use to mark their territories and tell friend from foe. The anxious beaver has clenched his tail, making matters more difficult, but at last the glands emerge, like pinkish teats, from the plush underfur. Alves squeezes gently, milking a dollop of viscous, yellowish fluid onto her gloved finger.
Males, they say, are redolent of motor oil. Females smell like old cheese.
Alves wrinkles her nose. “Male,” she confirms.
“It’s kind of musky and urine-y,” Bailey opines later. “At this point, it’s all over my waders, and it’s never coming out. Sometimes I’ll be in the car and suddenly smell it and think, Oh, where’s the beaver?”
His ordeal mercifully concluded, the beaver is released into one of the raceways, gliding up the narrow pen to huddle against the far wall. A cinder-block hut, floored with wood chips, stands at the raceway’s center. When we return the next morning, we’ll find that he’s settled into the makeshift lodge to await a family reunion. Beavers are kin-oriented creatures, with as many as 10 family members sharing a lodge: the mating adults, their newborn kits, 1-year-olds, and 2-year-olds. (The latter depart the colony each spring in search of their own territories, like college-bound teenagers.) Relocate a beaver by himself and he’s liable to wander the landscape, searching for companionship, until he’s devoured by a bear or cougar. Move him with his clan, and he’s more likely to stay put and build.