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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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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.

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