A beaver spotted in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. 
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A beaver spotted in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood.
Credit: KUOW photo/David Hyde

Everyone wants to live in Seattle. Especially beavers

Seattle, you may have noticed some new neighbors around lately.

Not the ones who moved here to work at Amazon — that’s another story entirely. We’re talking about beavers, which were all but eradicated from the region just over 100 years ago.

But now they’re back.

The photo attached to this story was taken by KUOW reporter David Hyde in Ballard this spring. Yup, that’s one of our rodent friends looking all warm and fluffy on a stroll in broad daylight — seemingly blissfully unaware that she’s a nocturnal animal.

Beaver sightings have become increasingly common lately in areas adjacent to water. You might spot them at dusk or early in the morning at Golden Gardens, around Union Bay by the University of Washington and at Carkeek Park. You might even see them around the shores of Lake Union and Portage Bay, where there are several active beaver colonies.

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So, why do beavers like Seattle so much? (Do they know about the drivers? The political frustration? The rents?) We asked a couple of beaver experts what’s going on.

Is it just us, or are there really more beavers hanging out in Seattle lately?

Benjamin Dittbrenner is a PhD candidate at the University of Washington, researching the role beavers can play in mitigating hydrologic changes in the climate. He’s also the executive director of Beavers Northwest, where he helps solve beaver conflicts. And Dittbrenner said that after years of beavers being trapped and killed — first for their pelts, then because they disturbed farmland and other areas inhabited by humans — beavers are rebounding. Fast.

“Beavers are not a rare animal,” Dittbrenner said. “They’re a rodent, and they reproduce really quickly.”

One likely reason for the increase might be a law passed in 2000 nixing the widespread use of body-gripping traps and other harsh techniques for catching beavers and other animals. Dittbrenner said traps must be checked daily now, making capturing animals more humane — and significantly less efficient.

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Records kept by the Department of Fish and Wildlife show that the number of reported beaver trappings in Washington decreased from roughly 5,000 per year to around 500 following the new law, Dittbrenner said.

“I suspect that that law is really what has propelled beaver populations to the levels that we’re seeing right now,” he said.

Okay, so why do they like the city so much?

Maybe for the same reason you like Seattle: the water, the trees, the mild climate. And Dittbrenner said beavers aren’t new to the region at all — they were here a long time ago.

“Beavers probably used to live in all those areas that people now live in,” he said. “They’re interested in coming back. These urban areas are kind of perfect for beavers — urban waterways. There are very few predators.”

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Along with two colleagues, Dittbrenner recently authored an article for the science journal WIREs Water examining the ecological impacts of beaver in urban green spaces. They mapped beaver activity in Seattle and found dozens of active beaver colonies, including many in or near waterfront public parks.

The city’s strategy is to peacefully coexist with the beavers.

“Where we can accomodate them well, we usually would just leave them alone,” said Barbara DeCaro, a senior environmental analysis for Seattle Parks and Recreation. “That can be easy or not so easy, depending on the site.”

Do beavers cause trouble?

King County residents are allowed to trap and kill beavers if they are causing trouble on private property. The worst a beaver colony usually does is cause flooding by damming up a waterway.

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But Dittbrenner said there are ways of mitigating flooding without displacing or killing beavers, including adding a mechanism that keeps water at an acceptable level.

“If it’s done correctly, the beavers don’t know that anything has happened,” he said. “They just go on with their happy beaver lives, and then people are assured because they know the pond is going to stay at that level.”

DeCaro said there’s a pond leveler at Magnuson Park already, and the city might have one installed at Golden Gardens at some point. She said beavers also bring down trees to build their dams, but that’s not such a bad thing.

“Some people really get upset about the trees coming down,” she said. “But of course, that’s beaver habitat — and it actually encourages more wildlife to inhabit that area.”

What should I do if I encounter a beaver?

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Not much, our experts said. Keep a respectful difference so as not to cause the animal stress. If you’re with a dog, make sure to keep a tight hold on the leash. But there’s no need to fear for your safety, especially if you encounter one on land.

“They move so darn slow, it can be pretty hard to have a beaver attack you,” DeCaro said.