Beavers: The Original Army Corps of Engineers

Beavers: The Original Army Corps of Engineers: Click for larger picture, Beaver with branch in water, Courtesy US FWS
Beaver with branch in water
Courtesy US FWS,
Steve Hillebrand, Photographer

Hi, I’m Holly Strand from Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

Beavers and beaver dams are a common feature of the Utah landscape. You’ll see the dams on smaller streams and side channels, constructed of branches, downed trees and mud. The still, deep water of the resulting pond creates ideal conditions for a beaver lodge. Beavers can escape and hide from predators by slipping into the pond and disappearing into the lodge. Beavers also use their ponds to cache their favorite
food—aspen and willow.

Because of their tree cutting and dam making skills, humans tend to have two divergent opinions of beavers: 60-pound nuisance or environmental engineer.

Click for larger picture, Beaver Lodge, Courtesy US FWS
Beaver lodge
Courtesy US FWS
Hans Stuart, Photographer

Beavers are considered a nuisance when they gnaw down trees that humans want to keep. Dams can flood roads or stop up irrigation canals. When beaver activity conflicts with human interests, they—the beavers–are likely to be trapped and killed.

However, beaver activity has many positive environmental consequences that we are just beginning to appreciate. Wetlands created by beaver dams help soak up sediments, improving downstream water quality. Because of beaver dams, the winter snowpack isn’t lost in a short spring pulse, This results in a more constant stream flow through the summer –and that’s important as Utah’s climate is predicted to become drier. Finally, beaver dams enhance habitat for many other fish and wildlife species and plants.

Click for larger picture, Beaver in pond, Courtesy US FWS
Beaver in pond
Courtesy US FWS
Steve Hillebrand, Photographer

According to Dr. Joe Wheaton, a geomorphologist at Utah State University, there’s a lot of untapped potential for employing beaver engineers in stream and floodplain restoration. Say you want to restore a stream by reconnecting it with its floodplain. You need to excavate channels, redirect stream flow, revegetate and nurture the
area for a long period of time. To accomplish this, you often need a
number of highly trained professionals and some large Tonka toys.

Alternatively –under the right conditions– you might transplant a
colony of beavers and let them apply their vigorous work ethic to your
landscape and get quite satisfying results.

Recognizing that nuisance beavers can be rehabilitated into hard
working wetland engineers and stream habitat restorationists, the Utah
Division of Wildlife Resources has rolled out the state’s first beaver
management plan in 2010. This plan encourages live trapping of entire
families of beavers in nuisance areas and moves them to specific sites where their
environmental services can be appreciated and put to use.

Click for larger picture, Beaver in snow, Courtesy US FWS
Beaver in snow
Courtesy US FWS

Thanks to the USU College of Natural Resources for supporting this Wild about Utah topic.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading

ARKive Images of Life on Earth, Information Sheet on Castor Canadensis (including some outstanding videos) – (BBC Natural History Unit)

  • American Beaver – Overview
  • American Beaver in the Lodge with Young
  • American beaver felling trees and storing food for the winter
  • American beaver scaring moose away from its lodge
  • American beaver returning to its lodge with food

  • Collen, P. and R.J. Gibson. 2001. The general ecology of beavers (Castor spp.), as related to their influence on stream ecosystems and riparian habitats, and the subsequent effects on fish – a review. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 10: 439–461, 2001. [ Accessed May 1, 2010]

    Prettyman, B. 2009. Utah wildlife: Leave it to the beavers. Article in Salt Lake Tribune, October 16, 2009. [ Accessed April 29, 2010]

    Smithsonian Castor Canadensis Information Page [ Accessed April 29, 2010]

    Big Bend Habitat Restoration Project: A Natural Work of Heart, Open Spaces-A Talk on the Wild Side, US FWS, [Accessed March 31, 2016]

    Beaver Dams Strengthened by Humans Help Fish Rebound
    60-Second Science – July 25, 2016 – By Jason G. Goldman02:29 Also available through the podcast