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Wild About Utah: Welcoming rodent engineers

Bethany Neilson

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…." 

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.

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.

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 Utah Public Radio, and I’m Wild About Utah