Short On Water In The Mountains? Beavers, To The Rescue — KUNC

A beaver dam on the Gunnison River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

We wade through a creek just downstream from a beaver dam, one of many in this stretch near the headwaters of North St. Vrain Creek. Without the beavers’ work, their engineering prowess, this diverse wetland wouldn’t be here. The valley bottom instead would slowly transform back into a grassy plain and the stream would return to its banks, cutting deeper into the landscape, [Juli] Scamardo says. The whole ecosystem would suffer.

“They definitely are engineers,” she says. “They change their environment to suit them and it also happens to suit a lot of other species.”

Scamardo is a master’s student at Colorado State University, studying how beavers alter landscapes.

Few species manipulate their surroundings enough to make big ecological changes. Humans are one. Beavers are another.

At one point, the rodents numbered in the hundreds of millions in North America, changing the ecological workings of countless streams and rivers. As settlers moved West, they hunted and trapped them to near extinction. Now there are new efforts — not just in Rocky Mountain National Park, but across the Western U.S. — to boost their numbers, and in turn, get us more comfortable with the way they engineer rivers and streams.

Beaver benefits

The North St. Vrain Creek beavers are a tough bunch.

Heavy snow melt runoff from the jagged peaks of the Front Range frequently undoes all their hard work. On the main creek, away from the marshy wetland, Alex Brooks, a Colorado State University watershed science PhD student, points to a beaver dam made of willows, mud and aspen branches. Last year, the creek blew out the dam. And now it’s back.

“So they were homeless for a little while,” I say, not fully understanding the mechanics of beaver habitats.

“They don’t actually live in these,” Brooks says. “They build these to flood the vegetation … They’ll build lodges where they live. The dams they build all over the place not just where they live.”

“Oh, I feel like that’s a misconception,” I say. “Don’t people think that every dam has beavers inside of it?”

Brooks kindly agrees.

“Yeah, I think that’s probably true,” he says.

Much like us, beavers build dams for their own benefit. They make ponds to protect their lodges and flood areas to increase the vegetation they feed on and use for building materials. While their motivations are selfish, they end up helping their woodland friends, like elk, moose, birds, fish and insects.

Scientists have shown we get lots of benefits, too. Beaver dams improve water quality, trap and store carbon — and in the aggregate could be a significant way of storing groundwater in dry climates.

Beaver reintroduction projects are already underway in Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Washington state. Sections of Rocky Mountain National Park, and vast swathes of the American West, seem primed for a beaver comeback, Scamardo says, but they’re not showing up.

“So we’re still asking the question of like, ‘What else do you want?’” she says. “Having a beaver psychologist would really be the best for one of these projects but we don’t have any of those.”

From WyoFile (Maggie Mullen):

It’s no secret that water is a problem in the West. Historically, the humble beaver helped maintain wetlands and ponds across the arid landscape but their populations were decimated during the fur trade and their numbers dropped dramatically from 400 million to just 100,000 by the turn of the twentieth century. But Canada’s national animal is making a comeback and scientists think they have an important role to play as our region fights drought.

Too many ranchers and landowners out here, the beaver is a destructive little beast. Not only can it wreak havoc on irrigation systems, it can take down trees, nibble through fiber-optic internet cables, and cause the occasional flood. But if you ask Jeremy Maestas, he said there’s much more to the animal.

“Just through their diligence and 24-hour work ethic, they’re making amazing things happen in the streams,” said Maestas. “And because they’ve been here for millennia, the plants that live here have evolved with their browsing and beavery.”

Maestas is a wildlife biologist and he said the beaver is essentially a walking, talking ecosystem. Instead of just using dams to control water, Maestas said we could also follow the beavers lead. He called it a “sticks and stones” approach.

“Rather than diesel fuel and Tonka toys, we just direct the water to move sediment and grow vegetation, and do all the good things we want the ecosystem to do,” said Maestas.

One of those good things includes storing more water in the ground. Across the Mountain West, most precipitation comes in the wintertime. But when snow melts, it can often be in a hurry. Turning into runoff or rushing down a stream to a bigger river, and far away from where it’s needed.

But if it encounters something like a beaver dam, Maestas said the water gets delayed.

“The longer that we can keep that on the landscape, we increase the productivity of those plants. And ultimately leads to more drought resilience, right? These sponges fill up with water. It’s like putting money in the piggy bank for those lean times,” Maestas said.

Lean times like when you don’t get a lot of snow. Or, when rising temperatures mean snowmelt happens early and the rush of water comes too soon for peak water demand in the growing season…

“But it really isn’t until you get down in the mud and you start building these that you understand the process that you’re trying to fix,” Maestas added.

So one afternoon in early August, about 40 people got their toes wet—and muddy—building a few of these beaver-like dams on a Nature Conservancy testing ground in Wyoming. The group mostly included people from agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and Game and Fish.

“I feel like this is the perfect day to try something new,” said Corissa Busse, who works for The Nature Conservancy in South Dakota.

She and the others spent about a day and a half in the classroom, learning what makes a beaver tick. They won’t have the power of chisel-like teeth, so workshop instructor Joe Wheaton told them to be creative.

“You’ll have shovels—very useful. You’ll have buckets. Please don’t put the buckets back together without cleaning them first. You’ll have loppers. You’ll have hands. Make sure everybody’s got gloves, everybody’s got eye protection,” said Wheaton.

They brought some untreated fence posts from town to build the dams, but otherwise, they had to use supplies from the area just like a beaver would. That meant willow branches, sticks, stones and mud. The materials allow the structure to be porous. Water can trickle through, but flows will still slow down long enough to soak deep into the ground.

Jeremy Maestas said there’s another big difference between this and a dam.

“We don’t want to be constantly coming back in here with human labor and effort trying to keep it alive,” said Maestas. “So, the sooner we can turn it over to Mother Nature, to do her job, the better off we’re all going to be.”

By Mother Nature, Maestas meant beavers. Once these human-made dams are established, they will re-introduce the animal into the area.

Maestas said this won’t work everywhere, especially in more urban settings, or places where the animal could interfere with infrastructure. But in the right setting, Maestas said, “We’re bringing nuisance animals into areas where they’re wanted.”

That way, he said, maybe beavers can begin to solve the problem of water in the West.

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