Madison Parks Division
Parks division staff point to trees damaged by beavers in Warner Park as justification for trapping the animals.
Eric Knepp, Madison’s parks superintendent, says that beavers are welcome at some of the city’s parks. Just not near the Warner Park lagoon.
The parks division decided to trap the animals at Warner in an effort to control flooding on the north side.
“Our goal is to find a harmony within the parks system. It’s not wild nature. That doesn’t exist in the city anymore. We have 250,000 people living here,” says Knepp. “We’ve disturbed nature to a great extent. We have an obligation as humanity — not just the parks division — to do our best to manage it.”
Knepp says that beaver dams, if left unchecked, can end up flooding soccer fields, recreational spaces and the parking lots at Warner Park as well as nearby streets and basements. Parks staff have found beavers damaged or fell more than a dozens trees.
“As far as hydrology, the vast majority of Warner Park and some amount of the surrounding area would have historically been a marsh,” explains Knepp. “A major concern is the flooding and water level change. The [Warner] lagoon is the primary conveyance for about 1,100 acres of the north side. That means when it rains and storms, the water goes there.”
The effort to trap the animals was largely under the radar, but when residents learned about it last week, many were outraged. Some people began yanking the traps on their own, prompting city staff to remove all of them.
Knepp tells Isthmus that the traps were set for three days and that one beaver was caught and killed. The traps were slated to be removed on April 1.
“Staff had already predetermined that they were going to remove traps on Saturday either way. The theft of traps, when brought to my attention, that made the decision unequivocal,” says Knepp. “[The theft of the traps] did cause me great concern. They were not easily accessible. They were set in an intentional way to try to nearly eliminate any adverse impacts. There is no doubt that this will be evaluated further.”
Trapping might have gone unnoticed if not for retired Madison police detective Sara Petzold. She lives near Warner Park and frequently visits with her giant schnauzer, Milo. On a recent walk, she spotted a truck with the license plate “ITRAP.”
“First thing I thought was, ‘Uh-oh,’” says Petzold. She then learned the truck belonged to a trapper contracted with the city to remove beavers. He told her that he was placing traps near the underwater entryways to the beavers’ lodge.
“I asked if he was trapping to relocate the beavers or kill them. He said, ‘Some of them are over 70 pounds, and it’s really hard to find a place to put them,’” says Petzold. “He then told me the traps hold the beavers underwater until they asphyxiate. It was disturbing to me that the city was essentially drowning beavers without any notice to residents.”
Petzold wrote about the encounter on social media, prompting outrage from others. She says the parks division’s decision to remove the traps because of “safety risks” is proof that the city should have told the public what it was doing.
“As far as I know, the neighborhood and the Wild Warner group were not notified. Considering the number of dogs that go swimming in the lagoon, I was worried that a dog could have been hurt or killed,” says Petzold. “In the parks division’s subsequent response to all this, they acknowledge that the traps are dangerous. That’s even further reason they should have made this known to residents.”
Knepp says that the city cannot notify residents about everything it does in the parks. “I would have some concerns about individualized public input meetings related to specific wildlife management operation,” he says. “Sometimes time is of the essence.”
The animal rights group PETA also contacted the city about the trapping. Kent Stein, a member of the group’s “emergency response team,” sent an email to Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, Common Council members and Knepp urging them to forgo trapping in favor of other methods to mitigate potential damage caused by beavers.
“Please understand that death by drowning is a terrifying and exceptionally painful ordeal (beavers can take up to 15 minutes simply to lose consciousness),” Stein wrote to officials. “Successful long-term wildlife control requires targeting the environment (vs. the animal) by making it unappealing and/or inaccessible to unwanted species. Examples of this for beavers include curtailing access to food sources by spraying tree trunks with [repellents], coating trunks with latex paint, or “caging” trunks with 3-foot-high wire mesh/hardware cloth offset by at least 10 inches to prevent gnawing.”
But Knepp argues that the traps don’t purposefully drown beavers.
“The traps that were used are body-grasping traps,” says Knepp. “They aren’t designed to cause drowning as a means of lethal take. I’m not arguing that it can’t occur. But the design of the trap is not predicated on that being the outcome in every situation.”
Petzold wants the parks division to justify its “covert trapping policy” to residents.
“I think we need to look at the benefits of having beavers at Warner Park [and] the negatives, and, as a city, find the right balance,” says Petzold. “I have not seen any indication that parks has really undertaken any of those analyses. That’s what concerns me the most. This could have easily flown under the radar, and we’d have no idea why the beavers were gone.”
Knepp, to the best of his knowledge, says Warner is the only city park where beaver trapping has occurred.
“We have not done any other beaver trapping at Madison parks this year, and I don’t recall when the last one was,” says Knepp. “We don’t routinely do this, and it’s not commonplace in our management plan.”
But he doesn’t rule out future beaver trappings as a “wildlife management tool.”
“There’s often a perspective that nature is predictable. It’s not. We can’t say for certain what will happen. But we will be monitoring it,” says Knepp. “There are situations that could necessitate a review of options available, including a trapping operation. As for the method of trapping, we will be continuing to evaluate with the DNR and other wildlife biologists at the University of Wisconsin on best practices.”
Ultimately, says Knepp, park policy is set by park commissioners and the Common Council. He looks forward to conversations with policymakers on the topic of trapping, public engagement and “what, if any, changes they’d like to see” to current wildlife management practices.
“We have resident beavers. We are proud of them. I’m always a little hesitant to tell people to look, explore and find beavers because that can be disruptive. But they are absolutely there, and they are welcome members of the park system,” says Knepp. “We spend a lot of time, money and passion on trying to promote diverse wildlife in our system. Some of our biggest accomplishments have been in that area.”