'Beaver' earmark in budget draws attention

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 6, 2009 

WASHINGTON — "How does one manage a beaver?" twittered Sen. John McCain to his followers from the Senate floor last week.

McCain’s derisive comments – "$650,000 for beaver management in North Carolina and Mississippi," he typed in his Twitter feed – came as part of his ongoing tirade against directed spending in the federal government.

But he angered workers in North Carolina who say they know full-well how to manage beavers: Trap the critters, blow up their dams and let the water flow.

State and federal wildlife officials claim to have saved nearly $5 million last year in potential flood damage to farms, timber lands, roadways and other infrastructure through its Beaver Management Assistance Program – the same one McCain was making fun of in Washington.

"Maybe you should ask (McCain) how much he knows about this and why he picked it out for ridicule," said U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat. "We know why he chose this — because it sounds funny."

The omnibus spending bill for the current fiscal year contains nearly $8 billion in directed spending, called earmarks. Among the earmarks is $208,000 for North Carolina’s Beaver Management Assistance Program. It was requested last year by Price and former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a Republican.

The spending bill already has passed the House and is scheduled be voted on in the Senate this week.

McCain, an ardent anti-earmark activist, last week tried to strip all the earmarks out of the spending bill. He failed, but he made headlines sending out quick online messages to followers, called “Twittering,” about a handful of projects.

McCain angered supporters of the beaver management program, who say beaver dams can wreak havoc by flooding culverts and low-lying areas near streams.

"If you're just looking for the funniest thing to criticize, beaver management program might seem interesting to someone just combing through the bill," said Jake Parker, who lobbies for the state Farm Bureau.

"It's a legitimate program that's worth funding," he said.

In 2001, a freight train derailed in Pitt County after flooding weakened a rail bed near a beaver dam. Chemicals spilled from 30 rail cars, said Jon Heisterberg, state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's APHIS wildlife services' division.

A week ago Heisterberg took a handful of state legislative staff members to a pair of culverts under Highway 301 in Rocky Mount. There, he said, 5-foot-tall beaver dams threatened to take over the 8-foot-tall culverts.

"It would have clogged all the way, if we hadn't taken care of it," Heisterberg said.

Beavers were reintroduced to North Carolina in 1939, according to state records, and they can have environmental benefits. Their beaver ponds serve as habitat for a variety of other wildlife, and the flooding can create new wetlands to support still more species.

But when the flooding spills into timberlands, across crop lands or over roadways and rail beds, the beavers cause trouble, Heisterberg said.

The state legislature launched the beaver management program in 1992. Now, a nine-member advisory panel made up of state, federal and local officials conducts the program.

Carol Bannerman, a USDA wildlife spokeswoman near Washington, said states around the country have beaver management programs.

In North Carolina, beavers are caught in humane traps that kills them instantly. The state does not allow them to be moved, Heisterberg said. The dams then are broken apart with hand tools or, if they’re inside culverts, destroyed with explosives.

His office determines how much damage its program prevents by figuring up the repair and replacement costs to the Department of Transportation and private landowners.

Before the Beaver Management Assistance Program came into being, the transportation agency spent more than $1 million a year getting rid of beavers.

Now, the Department of Transportation spends $350,000 a year, Heisterberg said.

This past year, 44 of the state’s hundred counties paid $4,000 each to join the federal/state partnership on managing beavers. Among them are Johnston, Harnett, Nash and Franklin.

In Washington, the N.C. Farm Bureau has put in the earmark request to Congress for the state’s federal share of $208,000, said Parker, the organization’s lobbyist.

Private landowners who ask for beaver trapping must pay a fee as well.

Price said he would rather have the program included in the president's budget request each year, but that it and many other agriculture programs have traditionally been funded through earmarks.

"It's a very sound use of federal money," he said. "That's why I supported it."

Parker already has put in an earmark request with Price and Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr for next fiscal year.

Burr spokesman Chris Walker said the senator will consider whether the beaver management request fits his guidelines.

"It's a little early in the process to speculate about next year's budget," Walker said.

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