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Voyage of the Beaver

Nature’s engineers — and environmental heroes — make a comeback in western U.S.

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High Country News

Even with a tall wooden cross mounted on the wall behind her, Mary O'Brien doesn't look like a typical preacher. In her blue cardigan and jeans, a single heavy braid falling like a gray rope down her back, she paces slowly from side to side, telling her listeners that we are worshipping a false landscape.

She means the West of fast-flowing streams and invitingly open banks, celebrated in photographs and songs and pickup truck commercials. That West is a modern illusion, she warns, even though we accept it as gospel and praise its beauty.

Several dozen people lean forward in the burnt-orange pews, intently focussing on O'Brien's message.

We have lost touch with a truer, older West, she goes on. But there is a saviour who can lead us back to it: the beaver.

Castor canadensis, believe it or not, is a time shifter. The humble, hardworking rodent, through its dams and ponds, can extend the release of water late into summer, saturating the ground and healing watersheds. It has the power to re-create the primordial, wetter West that existed for millennia - a West we just missed seeing.

"Restoration of the beaver is restoration of a landscape we don't have a cultural connection to," O'Brien says, "because they largely were trapped out."

Let us repent.

Beaver are a keystone species: Amen. Beaver restore riparian habitat: Amen. Beaver raise up the water table: Amen. Beaver show us the Western landscape as it was just prior to permanent white settlement. A big amen for this.

"You're not just preaching to the choir," someone sings out. "We are actually in the pews!"

O'Brien, a commandingly tall and angular woman who's a Grand Canyon Trust project manager, helped organize this "Working Beaver Conference." The setting - creaky old Zephyr Lodge on Liberty Lake, just east of Spokane - is a Christian-run conference center, which explains the pews and the cross.

About 70 enthusiasts in the lonely world of beaver restoration - including hydrologists, biologists and economists - have come from around the West for two days of workshops, slideshows and the rare chance to meet like-minded others. Storm-darkened springtime skies cast a gloomy light, but the talk crackles furiously.

North America had at least 60 million beaver before European settlement, according to the most-commonly cited estimate. Explorer David Thompson walked across much of the continent about 200 years ago and observed that it was "in the possession of two distinct races of beings, man and the beaver."

Historical trapping records in the Colorado Rockies show "60 to 80 beaver" per mile of stream, says Trey Schillie, an ecosystem services analyst for the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region. That abundance was repeated across the West.

But after a century of heavy trapping, the nationwide beaver population had shrunk to an estimated 100,000, and the West held just a fraction of that. Beaver have made a comeback from that low point, but there's a long way to go, according to the beaver-restorers here.

Suzanne Fouty, a Forest Service hydrologist in northeastern Oregon's Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, remembers being on a job along the East Fork of the Gila River in New Mexico years ago. "It was one of those beautiful fall days," she says. "Blue sky... the cottonwoods turning yellow... and a classic stream with a wide channel and shallow water." But when she gushed to others on that job about how pretty it was, "I got reamed out by Susan Schock (the head of the Gila Watch group). She told me I had internalized a degraded stream as natural."

That kind of picture-postcard stream - typically created by cattle that flattened the banks and severed the connection to groundwater - shows the imprint of generations of settlers. Prior to settlers and livestock, "there was a lot more slow-flowing water and less of the classic pooly, riffly streams we see now," says Michael Pollock, a Seattle-based ecosystems analyst for the federal NOAA Fisheries Service.

The beaver's West can still be seen, if you have an eye for geomorphic processes, the forces that shape a landscape. "There was about 10,000 years of beaver activity before we came," Pollock says. "You think about how long the beaver was here and what it can do to a landscape, and then you look at some of these high-elevation valleys, and there is a lot of evidence to suggest they were formed by beaver."

O'Brien adds, "People go into the mountains and love to see a meadow and love to see a pond, and so often in the West those were formed by beaver dams. Go to the base of a lot of your meadows in the mountains, and if you poke around, you'll see old, old remains of (beaver) dams."

Water shortages, worsened by climate change and population growth, provided impetus for this Liberty Lake conference. Facing demands for more storable water in a semiarid region, for instance, Washington's governors and the state Legislature have pushed the Columbia River Initiative since 2002, calling for a mix of new water projects and conservation. The state Department of Ecology's Office of the Columbia River is involved, funded in 2006 with $200 million for its first 10 years. Those efforts have prompted ambitious proposals for constructing gargantuan new manmade impoundment dams.

Mike Petersen, director of The Lands Council, a Spokane-based conservation group, became alarmed at the scope of those proposals. There had to be something better than flooding more valleys behind hunks of concrete -- but what? "How do you stop a massive dam project?" asks Brian Walker, the council's watershed projects manager. "I'm not sure if I was drinking or if Mike was when we asked, 'Hey, why not beavers? They build dams.'" High fives and a toast - clink! - for the beaver and for smaller, more ecosensitive dams!

From that sudsy brainstorming, The Lands Council pitched a beaver proposal to the Department of Ecology and won a $30,000 grant. With the money, the group is now studying 50 beaver ponds to determine their average water storage and identifying potential sites for restoring beaver. The Lands Council also helped organize the conference.

"We know historically there were probably thousands, or tens of thousands, of beaver dams around here," says Petersen, who would like to restock eastern Washington with up to a million beaver.

Like the environmentalists, Rick Roeder, a supervisor in the Office of the Columbia River, is intrigued by the way beaver dams can change the timing of water: spring runoff that normally gooshes away can be slowed, because beaver dams stretch out the release into late summer. But he warns that politicians will only laugh at beavers, unless the benefits of their dams can be scientifically measured.

The ecological benefits are becoming clearer: Pollock, of NOAA Fisheries, is working with Kate Martin of the Oregon Natural Desert Association (another conference organizer) on restoring beaver to Bridge Creek, a tributary of the undammed John Day River in arid eastern Oregon. They report exciting discoveries: Beaver ponds provide habitat for overwintering juvenile steelhead, in much the way they shelter juvenile coho salmon, an endangered species, in coastal Washington and Oregon.

And, Pollock says, thermal imaging shows that the water temperature drops between two and four degrees centigrade when Bridge Creek passes through a section with beaver dams. This counters the conventional wisdom that beaver dams raise water temperature and are harmful to fish.

The beaver restorers face many kinds of resistance, though. While many bureaucrats see beavers as unknowns, landowners often regard them as pests that chew on trees and flood fields or roads. Water-rights owners think beavers steal their water.

The fact that today's Westerners inherited a landscape virtually empty of beaver leads us to often see them as intruders.

Oregon illustrates the conflicts. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife notes many benefits to having beaver in the landscape, even as the Oregon Department of Agriculture recently reclassified beaver as a predator. Hearing this, the folks at the conference laugh. "Do (beaver) take out peg-legged people?" Pollock wonders.

The "predator" classification allows Oregon landowners to kill beaver without getting a permit first or notifying anyone about the numbers killed. Charlie Ernst, a soft-spoken, fourth-generation rancher in central Oregon's Tygh Ridge, near Dufur, is changing that mindset by letting beaver re-colonize his 5,700 acres of dryland wheat and cattle pasture.

"My grandfather killed beaver. My uncle killed beaver. I never understood what the problem was. It always looked like a benefit to me," says Ernst, who stopped the trapping about 15 years ago.

Ernst has aerial photos that show the change along the seven miles of Dry Creek that meanders across his land. "The landscape with no beaver looks like a lunar landscape. With beaver, you need a machete. It's that thick," Ernst says.

Dry Creek used to run with water only a few days in spring. Now, with 20 beaver dams, it runs for months.

Sherri Tippie, a Colorado prison hairdresser who's become a national expert on live-trapping beaver, brings a Hancock trap (it resembles a chain-link suitcase) from the trunk of her rental car. She sets it on the carpet, tugs off a shoe - "You might want to move," she tells one person in the front row - and bang! springs the trap.

"I used to live-trap in a bikini. I'm heavy now, but I used to look pretty good," Tippie says - and she has the pictures to prove it.

Like many people, she says, she used to focus mainly on "the big, sexy animals like cougar and wolf." Then one day, she saw a TV news report that beaver were going to be killed for munching on trees at an Aurora, Colo., golf course. Tippie rounded up some journalists and marched down to the state wildlife office to demand a less lethal solution. A wildlife agent, perhaps trying to get rid of her, hauled out some big box traps and told her she could do it herself. "It was pretty intimidating," she says. But she read the instructions and trapped two beaver the next day.

That was 24 years ago, and Tippie still live-traps and relocates beaver. Increasingly, however, she encourages landowners to coexist with beaver. She's formed a grassroots group called Wildlife 2000 to demonstrate, online and on site, devices and techniques to help resolve conflicts.

"Beaver are where they should be, doing what they should be doing," Tippie says. "Over time, I realized we should learn to live with the beaver where they are. I'd like to relocate some of the people."

Schillie, the Forest Service analyst based in Denver, used to work in the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C., focusing on carbon and climate change policy, "thinking about how do we adapt to the projected impacts, and thinking of low-tech solutions." When he moved West last year, it hit him: "Beaver habitat."

In the last decade, catastrophic wildfires, driven by climate change, have incinerated some Rocky Mountain watersheds so intensely that the soil now actually repels water. In addition to losing vegetation, the ground is "becoming hydrophobic -- less permeable to water," Schillie says. This has caused erosion and severe washoff of soils into drinking-water reservoirs.

In the watershed hit by the 2002 Hayman Fire in central Colorado, Denver water utilities have "built a couple of fairly large rock dams just above the reservoirs that stop sediment and allow water to pass through. Then they come in behind the dam and dredge the sediment and haul it away," Schillie says. The dredging must be done frequently, he adds. "I think you can go higher up the slope and have more effect by creating beaver dams. You reduce velocity and at the same time capture sediment." So Schillie has just submitted a proposal to headquarters for a demonstration project. "We see a lot of value" in beaver restoration, he says.

Even here at Liberty Lake, there are benefits and conflicts. Beaver have returned in recent years. But when their dams flooded some popular hiking trails, residents took matters into their own hands, poaching out the animals and using rakes to hack the dams apart. BiJay Adams, lake protection manager for the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District, convinced the beaver's opponents to back off, because the animals were restoring -- for free -- a water-filtering marsh, work that would have cost the district $500,000. The trails could easily be relocated, he assured them.

It's a tougher sell a few miles away, at Sacheen Lake, where beaver have created what one state wetlands regulator calls "beaver heaven" at the lake's outlet. Frustrated residents are threatening to dynamite the dams because the slower release of water is raising the lake level, threatening homes and septic systems, and high-water wave action is eroding the shore.

The weather fits the conference's primordial longings: a sky woolly gray and rumpled, so saturated with moisture that it falls all day as rain or hail and even snow, with flashes of lightning and thunder.

The prevailing winds blow away the storm just in time for a scheduled evening hike into an adjacent county park to see a series of four beaver dams. Sunlight gains extra brilliance as it slants across the scrubbed air. Raindrops hanging from still-bare branches along the shoreline trail and falling from the needles of cedar and pine shine diamond-bright, adding extra dazzle.

It's a fine sight for Felix Aripa, an 86-year-old Coeur d'Alene tribal elder. Aripa says that beaver not only help with efforts to restore native cutthroat trout, they also encourage cultural restoration. Their presence often means that there are desired plants in the area, such as cedar, certain types of willows and medicinal plants that have become hard to find. Some of these plants have become so rare that they are GIS-mapped, Aripa says. Now, Coeur d'Alene children are taken out to observe and identify them in their native Salish tongue and do some harvesting.

"At language school, we want to tell about beaver, take classes to some of these different areas," Aripa says. "I'd like to teach our children what the beaver provides."

At the end of the hike, Aripa faces into the sun, observing the first of the beaver dams just off the trail.

"Years ago, they said there was a lot of red willow and birch trees here, and cottonwoods. ... (And) there was beaver all the way up there," Aripa says, throwing his arms wide. "This is beaver country."

As if on cue, a beaver appears, browsing, in its ring of shining water.

The dozens of people who made the hike stand transfixed.

Kevin Taylor writes for the Pacific Northwest Inlander in Spokane, Washington.

This story was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation.

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