This story originally appeared on Underscore.news.
C’waam and Koptu were once a staple meal for the Klamath Tribes. They’re a rarity now — members are allowed to catch only two of the suckerfish a year. The ray-finned C’waam, with its long snout and the smaller white-bellied Koptu, with a large head and lower notched lip, are only found in the Upper Klamath basin.
Once fished in their thousands as one of the tribes’ important First Foods, the fish populations were decimated when the health of their spawning grounds declined from a spate of dam building in the Upper Klamath Lake during the 1900s.
The lake has been plagued by toxic algae, which starve the fish of oxygen, and the tribes have seen suckerfish populations plummet from the tens of millions down to less than 45,000. They are now endangered. The C’waam, also known as Lost River sucker, can grow up to almost 3 feet long and weigh 10 pounds. The Koptu, also called the shortnose sucker, can reach 18 inches and live up to 30 years.
The tribal government has tried various tactics to restore fish populations: raising young fish to older ages before releasing them in the lakes, monitoring water quality, working with landowners to restore riparian habitat and bringing a lawsuit, which was eventually dropped, against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to save the C’waam and Koptu. Now the tribes are turning to an unlikely hopeful savior: the beaver.
“Their activity is a driver for the productivity and diversity for the whole ecosystem,” said Alex Gonyaw, senior fisheries biologist for the Klamath Tribes in Southern Oregon and Northern California.
Last fall, Gonyaw oversaw the construction of a beaver dam analog, a manmade structure that mimics a natural beaver dam and is used to attract beaver families.
Beavers bring benefits to land
Oregon is the Beaver State. And yet, state law classifies beavers as predators, meaning they can be hunted and trapped on private land across Oregon with few restrictions. Once an endemic species across the U.S. before the semi-aquatic rodents were trapped into near-extinction during the 1800s fur trade, beavers are a vital component to the ecosystem, improving water quality and fish habitat. The animals are known to improve salmon habitat, but Gonyaw’s venture is the first attempt to use beavers to stabilize the suckerfish populations.
Two bills currently moving through the Oregon Legislature would respectively prohibit the taking of beavers on federally managed public land and exclude beavers from being classified as predatory animals.
“Our aim is to work with nature not against it,” Gonyaw explained. The tribal government, which hopes to establish a stable fish population as a food source, wanted to reshape the land to provide healthy fish habitats. But they didn’t want to use bulldozers to reshape the Williamson River. “We needed to hold the water back, and beavers do that…