By Matthew Steinwurtzel
In the mid-1800s, the North American beaver was almost driven to extinction as a result of the aggressive fur trade that followed Western colonization. Now, more than a hundred years later, humans are learning to mimic the behavior these animals exemplify to promote riparian and meadow restoration – beaver dam construction.
The use of low-tech restoration methods such as artificial beaver dams are gaining traction in the West, because of the potential for increased productivity across rangelands. And as these low-tech methods are increasingly implemented, newly published research reinforces the wide-ranging benefits of these techniques.
This past June, Cameron Packer of the Wood River Land Trust, along with staff from The Nature Conservancy, National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and other agencies and organizations, participated in a workshop that explored the benefits of working with beavers through the implementation of beaver dam analogs (also known as BDAs). The workshop was held on Rinker Rock Creek Ranch and led by BDA pioneer Joe Wheaton of Utah State University. During the workshop, participants learned about the numerous benefits that stem from working with beavers in harmony, as opposed to the historical view of the animals being annoyances. Beaver-based restoration is far less costly than typical stream restoration techniques –and ecosystems, wildlife and working-land stakeholders all prosper from the use of BDA’s.
So how exactly do BDA’s work? Typically implemented in areas where beavers are or were once prevalent, BDA’s consist of log posts which are pounded upright into the stream bed. Afterwards, smaller willow sticks and other material are weaved through the posts. From there, beavers are able to take over and reinforce the dams through their own behaviors. The goal of BDAs is to capture sediment and widen riparian areas. Stream flows are slowed, which captures sediment on the landscape, promoting riparian vegetation growth and floodplain reconnection. This process enables water table recharge during high flow events as water exceeds the stream banks and flows onto the floodplain. Thus the landscape is able to hold water for a longer period of time, so there is more water available later in the season, allowing wet meadow pastures to stay greener and plants have a sustained source of water during drought. Ultimately, beaver activity, and beaver mimicry restoration techniques create habitat complexity that benefits numerous species including fish, insects, birds, big game and amphibians.
“Beavers are an important part of the ecosystem, they can be a nuisance in certain circumstances, but we need to learn how to live with them and benefit from their behavior. Beaver activity promotes ecosystem resilience and we want to incorporate these benefits in how we manage our lands,” Cameron says. But it’s not just wildlife that benefits from the use of beaver mimicry. Research is increasingly showing that the use of BDAs and low-tech restoration methods promote increased vegetation growth and keep vegetation green longer across working rangelands. For ranchers, this is a blessing.
A recent study conducted by several researchers reinforced the benefits of utilizing low-tech restoration methods on vegetation productivity and resilience. Among the examined methods included the use of BDAs. The study found that the use of these methods increased vegetation productivity by 25% and increased the annual persistence of vegetation.
The utility of a restoration method for rangelands that benefits both wildlife and land-users speaks for itself. If there’s one principle all Westerners can agree on, it’s that water is life. The Wood River Land Trust is proud to implement and execute techniques that showcase the importance of a harmonious relationship between humans and wildlife, and will continue to explore how BDAs can be installed on our working lands.