Welcoming Rodent Engineers

Welcoming Rodent Engineers: Spawn Creek Beaver Dam and Pond Courtesy and Copyright Bethany Neilson, Photographer
Spawn Creek Beaver Dam and Pond
Courtesy and Copyright Bethany Neilson, Photographer
Finding a beaver dam gives me a sense of discovery and connects me to the past. I fondly remember my parents pointing out dams when we drove up Logan canyon. Instinctively, we’d scan, hoping to see the animals that built and maintained those structures. When we talked about beaver dams, the conversation often turned to trappers who would rendezvous and re-supply in the Bear Lake and Cache valleys. We lived where history had happened, and I was eager to know more.

Years later, inspired by a history class, I read Dale Morgan’s Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West. Morgan followed the travels of Smith and his fellow trappers who answered William Ashley’s 1822 ad in the Missouri Gazette requesting “ONE HUNDRED MEN, to ascend the river Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two, or three years….”

North American beaver (Castor canadensis) Courtesy US FWS, Larry Palmer, Photographer
North American beaver
(Castor canadensis)
Courtesy US FWS, Larry Palmer, Photographer
Ashley’s troop competed with the Hudson’s Bay Company, the American Fur Company and several native indigenous tribes, all trapping beaver. The story sounds familiar: beaver pelts, and later bird feathers, were used to create hats, and the movement to harvest them led to a significant decline in numbers. For the birds, this decline led to building refuges and other conservation efforts. But the plight of the beaver continued downhill as exploration and discovery encouraged an influx of settlers. For the next century, the remaining beaver were regarded by those settlers as invasive land-grabbers, in competition with efforts to direct water, mine and irrigate.

However, today beavers are gaining more respect as we better understand the benefits of their skills in supporting wildlife and wetland conservation. Researchers at Utah State University, including Joe Wheaton and Nick Bouwes of the Department of Watershed Sciences, are studying habitat improvement after beaver introduction as a cost-effective way to combat drought and fire.

Spawn Creek Beaver Dams Courtesy & Copyright Joe Wheaton
Spawn Creek Beaver Dams
Courtesy & Copyright Joe Wheaton, Photographer
They have repeatedly demonstrated, over the past few years, that beaver families can be introduced and thrive behind fabricated beaver dam analogues(BDAs). After release into the resulting ponds, the beavers take over maintenance and produce their own dams. Over time, these dams and their rodent engineers improve stream flows, raise water tables, and cool water temperatures.

In essence, active beaver dams create Mesic habitats where the land maintains a well-balanced supply of moisture throughout the growing season. These dams slow spring run-off as they retain water in ponds and the surrounding soil, thereby, securing water for fish, trees, birds and wildlife. The best part is that the beavers do the maintenance.

Installing Beaver Dam Analogues, Rio Cabolla, Santa Fe National Forest, Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Installing Beaver Dam Analogues
Post Fire Rehabilitation
Rio Cabolla, Santa Fe National Forest,
Courtesy USDA Forest Service

Completed Beaver Dam  Analogues, Rio Cabolla, Santa Fe National Forest, Courtesy USDA Forest Service Completed Beaver Dam Analogues, Rio Cabolla, Santa Fe National Forest,
Courtesy USDA Forest Service

When wildfires occur, beaver oases preserve wildlife and habitat. However, if beaver and their habitats don’t exist in an area before a fire, they can still play a role. By retaining water with beaver dam analogs, we can create wetlands conducive to beaver habitat. In Joe Wheaton’s words, “We can’t dump beaver into a watershed that has burnt to the ground and expect them to do the restoration of degraded streams on their own…. What we can do post-fire is accelerate recovery with low-tech structures that make it easier to more quickly get beaver into an area and accelerate recovery. We’d like to help them do that.” (Utah State Magazine, Winter 2019, p.12)

To learn more about how birds, beaver and water are key to the understanding and improvement of our environment, and to find ways to get involved, check out this story on this wildaboututah.org.

I’m Lyle Bingham for Bridgerland Audubon, and I’m Wild About Utah

Photos: Beaver Dam, Courtesy & Copyright © Bethany Neilson, Photographer https://uwrl.usu.edu/people/faculty/neilson-bethany
Spawn Creek Beaver Dams Courtesy & Copyright Joe Wheaton
Installing & Completed Beaver Dam Analogues, Rio Cabolla, Santa Fe National Forest, Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Featured Audio: Courtesy & Copyright © Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio upr.org
Text: Lyle Bingham, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading

Wild About Utah, Lyle Bingham’ Wild About Utah Postings

Strand, Holly, Beavers: The Original Army Corps of Engineers, April 29, 2010, https://wildaboututah.org/beavers-the-original-army-corps-of-engineers/

Leavitt, Shauna, Beaver–Helping Keep Water on Drying Lands, April 17, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/the-beaver-helping-keep-water-on-drying-lands/

Leavitt, Shauna, Sixty In-stream Habitat Structures in Four Days: Demonstrating Creek Restoration Techniques, December 18, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/sixty-instream-habitat-structures-in-four-days-demonstrating-creek-restoration-techniques/

Hellstern, Ron, Leave it to Beaver, July 30, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/leave-it-to-beaver/

Leavitt, Shauna, Proposed Beaver Holding Facility in Millville, Utah, September 3, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/proposed-beaver-holding-facility-in-millville-utah/

Leavitt, Shauna, Beaver in Utah’s Desert Rivers, July 6, 2020, https://wildaboututah.org/beaver-in-utahs-desert-rivers/

Heers, Mary, Beaver Tail Slap, October 12, 2020, https://wildaboututah.org/beaver-tail-slap/
(re-aired in late December 2021)

Other Favorites:

Randall, Brianna, Nature’s Engineers: How Beavers Boost Streamflows and Restore Habitat, https://www.sagegrouseinitiative.com/natures-engineers-how-beavers-boost-streamflows-and-restore-habitat/
Randall, Brianna, How Beavers Boost Stream Flows, National Wildlife Federation, January 8, 2020, https://blog.nwf.org/2020/01/how-beavers-boost-stream-flows/

Low-Tech Process Based Restoration of Riverscapes Design Manual, https://lowtechpbr.restoration.usu.edu/manual/

New Manual for Low-Tech Riparian Restoration, https://www.sagegrouseinitiative.com/new-manual-for-low-tech-riparian-restoration/

Randall, Brianna, Beavers, Water, and Fire—A New Formula for Success, Low-tech stream restoration works wonders for people and wildlife, National Wildlife Federation, October 30, 2018, https://blog.nwf.org/2018/10/beavers-water-and-fire-a-new-formula-for-success/

Nicholas Weber ,Nicolaas Bouwes,Michael M. Pollock,Carol Volk,Joseph M. Wheaton,Gus Wathen,Jacob Wirtz,Chris E. Jordan, Alteration of stream temperature by natural and artificial beaver dams, May 17, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176313 OR https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0176313

Prettyman, Brett, Dolling (SLTRIB), Justin(UT DWR), Beavers in Utah, Creators of Habitat, The Salt Lake Tribune & Utah DWR, Oct 15, 2009 •

Utah’s population of beaver has recovered since the days when they were trapped by mountain men, but some people wonder if moving beaver to traditional habitats may help deal with drought.

Utah Beaver Management Plan, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/pdf/furbearer/beaver_plan_2010-2020.pdf

Birds, Beaver and Water in a Changing Climate, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/birds-beaver-and-water-in-a-changing-climate/