A downtown Medford vandal is systematically taking down a riparian project along Bear Creek that high school kids spent four years turning from a mass of blackberries into perhaps the stream's healthiest stretch.
Project leader Jim Hutchins says the vandal and perhaps a partner are sneaking into the 200-yard project area at Hawthorne Park and making off with a tree or bush almost nightly, much to Hutchins' chagrin.
"This is what I woke to this morning," Hutchins says, pointing to a sawed-off stem of an unidentifiable tree. "This was a marvelous Dosier dogwood. First they went after the cottonwood, then the alder and now the dogwood. Now I guess anything goes. It's crazy.
"Beaver vandalism," he sighs.
The beavers slink into the project between Jackson and Main streets nearly every night, undoing a project that took thousands of hours of donated labor in one series of buck-toothed nibbles.
"They're just killing me here," Hutchins says.
The Oregon Stewardship project that has been the focal point of dozens of high-school work parties and a half-dozen senior projects had been thriving, with hundreds of native trees and bushes planted to stabilize the bank and provide water-cooling shade.
The project has seen great growth in part because Hutchins' design took into account all the variables that often cause one-shot riparian planting efforts to fail.
The area was cleared of non-native blackberries and replanted systematically. Unlike most projects, this one includes sprinklers that water the ground that otherwise would be dry and harsh to young plants trying to survive under the Interstate 5 viaduct.
And Hutchins spends half a day each Monday and Friday weeding, shoveling dirt, and checking and clearing the bioswales that naturally filter dirt and petroleum from viaduct runoff before it reaches the creek.
For Hutchins, it's been a showcase project for what his force of local high-schoolers can do to this embattled stream if given the access and a little financial help for tools and plants.
But nature has thrown its proverbial curve ball.
"By far the biggest problem we have is the beavers," he says.
They started earlier this month, biting through the cottonwoods and hauling them away and leaving a short, jagged stump in their wake. Many of the cottonwoods were closest to the water, so they were the logical first targets.
The animals have moved up the bank over time, occasionally cutting so low to the ground that Hutchins occasionally trips over the new stumps hidden in the wet grass.
And the trees have disappeared. He thinks they've been hauled across the creek, perhaps as materials for a new den hidden in the overgrowth.
Hutchins recently bought mounds of chicken wire to wrap the trees' bases. The beavers either pulled down the mesh to munch away or yanked it out altogether.
"We thought that would do it," Hutchins says. "But we had to go to something stronger."
Hutchins and some volunteers Monday strung heavy-gauge wire around a few trees 4 feet up the trunks.
"Hopefully that will work, but it's going to almost look like a prison down there," he says.
In a new, one-of-us-has-to-go approach, Hutchins has contacted a trapper in hopes of relocating these beavers to a tributary of Bear Creek or elsewhere in the Rogue River Basin, where they could use their engineering skills and tree-poaching prowess to help create fish habitat.
"That would be ideal," he says.
But it will take some steps.
First, the city of Medford will have to give its permission to trap within city limits.
Also, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has an official "Guidelines for Relocation of Beavers in Oregon." That includes a site inspection and OK from a district wildlife biologist, an ear-tag on the beavers getting the boot and release only in a pre-approved location.
"It's not a straightforward thing, but we do have beaver handling procedures," says Mark Vargas, the ODFW's Rogue District wildlife biologist.
"Beavers are a nuisance problem and they cause grief with people wherever they go," Vargas says.
Until this downtown vandal gets its eviction notice, Hutchins still has an ace in the hole — attrition.
"Lucky for the kids and I, we over-planted here," he says. "We've got more trees than that sucker can take."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at email@example.com.