Beginning as early as the 17th century, beavers have struggled to find safe places to build their homes. Initially, hunters trapped beaver extensively to keep up with the popular beaver fashions in Europe.Then as settlers began moving west, they considered the beavers annoying because of their tendency to cause flooding and damage trees – so the trapping continued.
However, today in many parts of the American West, the beaver’s 400-year-old struggle is fading, because of their ability to keep water on dry land in an efficient manner.
While beavers may not be welcome in most city limits, ranchers and wildlife managers are re-introducing them to rural areas where the benefits of their dams far outweigh the inconveniences.
One such place is the Della Ranches in west Box Elder County, where the Tanner family has been ranching for six generations. The ranch is located in a remote part of the state and has some of the best intact sagebrush habitat in Utah with strong populations of sage grouse and mule deer.
Most of the precipitation on the ranch, which averages less than 12 inches a year, comes as snow during winter and rain in April and May. By the end of the summer, the majority of the streams have dried up.
Having a sustainable water supply is an ongoing concern for the Tanners. They are searching for ways to keep water on the land throughout the summer.
Jay Tanner explains, “I considered building a reservoir or pond but it would be expensive, require quite a bit of maintenance, and permits. Beaver dams on the other hand are inexpensive, sustainable, and self-maintained.”
Kent Sorenson, habitat biologist from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources described the financial benefit of the beavers, “[When beaver manage the dams] our operation and maintenance costs go to zero — they do all the work. They are 24/7 – 365-day maintenance crews that do not require a Corps of Engineers 404 permit.
When Jay Tanner learned of the potential benefit of beavers, he drove to Utah State University and met with scientists and researchers who had experienced success in restoring beavers in the west.
Eric Thacker, Rangeland Management Extension Specialist at USU said, “A beaver dam provides a buffer or mitigation for drought.”
Once the dams are established, they keep the water on the land. This is beneficial to fish, wildlife and livestock.
Sage-grouse hens like to gather with their chicks in the wet meadows by beaver dams, where they can find plenty of insects and vegetation for their chicks.
After further discussions with USU, the Tanners entered into a multi-year partnership with the Quinney College of Natural Resources and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to reintroduce beaver to their ranch.
Currently, all involved are working to make the streams and surrounding area appropriate for new beaver families. Once the areas are ready and the correct permits are in place, UDWR will capture a beaver pair, keep them in quarantine for the appropriate amount of time then introduce the beavers to a stream on the Tanner Ranch
Reintroducing a beaver couple instead of a single beaver is essential for the success of the project. They are social critters. Beaver will leave the location and go searching for a partner if they are not re-introduced with one.
In an established beaver dam, you will likely find monogamous parents with their babies called “kits”, their yearlings, and extended families.
Joseph Wheaton, Associate Professor in the department of Watershed Sciences and Principal Investigator on the project said, “If [this] project is successful, the implications are huge for instream and riparian restoration throughout the state of Utah as beaver are potentially an extremely cost-effective form of restoration…”