A legislative plan to boost lethal trapping of beavers would be both cruel and ineffective, according to a report released by wildlife advocates yesterday amid growing calls to rein in the surging population of dam-building rodents.
The report, issued by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and three other wildlife groups, concluded that more extensive trapping would not only be inhumane, sometimes subjecting animals to slow, painful deaths, it would fail to thin out beavers' ranks.
The beaver population is likely to stabilize on its own, and trapping could backfire by causing adult beavers to repopulate faster, the report concluded.
''There are nonlethal solutions to human-wildlife conflicts," said John Hadidian, director of the Humane Society of the United States' urban wildlife program and an author of the report. ''Recreational trapping is not the only way."
The report's release was timed to coincide with today's legislative hearing on several proposed measures that would relax restrictions against lethal traps adopted under a 1996 ballot initiative. State wildlife officials say that the beaver population has roughly tripled since the law's passage and that beaver dams have damaged wells and septic systems and flooded backyards and basements across the state.
Animal-rights advocates question the rise in the state's beaver population figures. They contend that increased lethal trapping is an overreaction to a problem that could be managed in better ways.
The report, an overview of the impact of the 1996 law, criticized state wildlife officials for promoting trapping instead of breaching dams with flood-control devices to minimize beavers' impact on residential areas.
At a press conference held at the MSPCA's headquarters in Jamaica Plain, Stephanie Hagopian, director of the group's Living with Wildlife program, called for continued restrictions against ''cruel and indiscriminate" body-gripping metal devices. Those traps, which operate like mousetraps, do little to reduce the beaver population, particularly in residential areas, advocates said.
An MSPCA enforcement official used a stuffed beaver to demonstrate how an underwater trap known as a conibear clamps down on the animal's neck with a swift snap. The use of conibear traps is restricted, though cages and box traps that enclose the entire animal are allowed.
Proponents, including the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, say they believe traps are humane because they kill the animals quickly and are the best tool for managing the beaver population. Representative William G. Greene Jr., a Billerica Democrat who is calling for a pilot program to determine beaver-control strategies, said the animals are becoming a growing nuisance.
''Beavers have done a tremendous amount of damage in this state, and MSPCA refuses to admit there's a problem," he said. ''Hundreds of people are losing their properties to flooding."
Representative George N. Peterson Jr., a Grafton Republican who has filed legislation to allow broader use of conibear traps, said they are the ''most effective way" to reduce the number of beavers.
He said public works employees spend a lot of time removing dams and clearing out flooded septic systems, and the beaver dams create ponds that are prime breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Peter Mirick, a wildlife biologist with the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, blamed the 1996 law for the beaver population explosion. ''What people have to understand is that trapping is not cruel," he said. ''It's a much more humane death than they would suffer in the wild."
MSPCA officials, who lobbied for the 1996 restrictions, note that lethal traps are still legal in certain circumstances. Property owners can obtain permits to use conibear traps if they can demonstrate a threat to human health and safety or show that other methods of fixing the problem did not work.
Hadidian said beavers produce environmental benefits, particularly in replacing wetlands lost to residential development. Beaver numbers are self-regulated by limits on resources and will probably decline naturally, he said.
Representative Pamela Resor, an Acton Democrat, said she opposes major changes to the 1996 law, saying more extensive trapping could spur adult beavers to reproduce faster because there would be less competition for food. A higher birth rate could outpace the number of beavers killed.
Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com.