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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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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.

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