Humans mimicking beavers to combat wildfires and restore wetlands

Researchers in Colorado have built hundreds of dam-like structures in hopes of mimicking a fraction of the success the state’s beavers have had throughout history. Ashley Hom with the U.S. Forest Service co-leads Colorado’s largest beaver-based restoration project — along with many partners. In just two years, this team built 316 beaver mimicry structures, about half of which were BDAs, or beaver dam analogues — manmade structures that imitate beaver dams. Many of them were constructed by volunteers, according to a story by Julie Cleveland.

These BDAs are built using wooden fenceposts and willows that act as a low-cost and low-maintenance structure to protect areas from wildfire while maintaining or improving water quality.

The loss of keystone beaver populations has caused a negative impact on watersheds throughout the western United States. Dams that beavers create slow the flow of spring run-off while raising the water table to keep the landscape wet. Without beavers and their dams, streambanks have eroded, causing snowmelt and run-off to drain too quickly from the landscape.

Beaver dam on Baugh Creek near Hailey, Idaho. USFWS photo
Beaver dam on Baugh Creek near Hailey, Idaho. USFWS photo

“As beavers create and maintain wetlands, the outcomes are vast,” Cleveland wrote. “A lack of beavers has resulted in an increased intensity of drought and wildfires in the West as fires spread rapidly across parched landscapes. Wetlands act as natural fuelbreaks, giving firefighters a chance for containment.”

The effectiveness of beavers against wildfires has been seen in real-time. The 2018 Sharp Flats Fire burned more than 60,000 acres in Idaho, but seemingly left one area untouched.

Loading beavers for transport
Idaho Fish and Game officers load a beaver into a wooden box before he’s loaded on a plane and dropped into the Idaho backcountry. IDFG photo

Nearly 70 years beforehand, Idaho Fish and Game had rounded up and relocated beavers, sometimes by parachute, throughout the state, including the Baugh Creek area.

Beavers in wooden boxes drop from a plane into the Frank Church Wilderness to start a new life.
Beavers in wooden boxes drop from a plane into the Frank Church Wilderness to start a new life. IDFG photo

The Sharp Flats Fire burned all of the land around Baugh Creek, but the beavers’ dams and the wetland they created were left unburned.

The contrast was so stark that researchers at Boise State University and Utah State University teamed up with NASA to start building tools to measure the benefits of beaver reintroduction in other areas of the country.


Post-burn image of the Sharps Flat burn, image by NASA.
Post-burn image of the Sharp Flats burn, image by NASA.

Watch the below video to see what researchers are paying attention to after beavers make their way back to wetlands — beaver rewilding as measured by NASA:


Alert reader Tom Jones sent over some photos he took of the beaver habitat on the B&B Fire in Oregon.

“We were with the NW Oregon type 2 team in September 2003,” wrote Tom. “Robert Alvarado was the Human Resource Specialist (HRSP) and I was the FBAN. Robert liked to go out on the line and talk with the crews to see how they were doing. I went to the line every day, so he would go with me. Each morning after briefing he would ask me, ‘What kind of adventure are we going to have today?’ The last two photos are of me and Robert at Marion Lake.”

Beavers' Fireline, B&B Complex 15. September 2003. Tom Jones photo.
Beavers’ fireline, B&B Complex 15. September 2003. Tom Jones photo.
Beaver Swamp Burned, B&B Complex, September 2003. Photo by Tom Jones.
Beaver swamp burned, B&B Complex, September 2003. Photo by Tom Jones.
Robert Alvarado and BeaverLine, 2003 photo by Tom Jones.
Robert Alvarado and BeaverLine, 2003 photo by Tom Jones.
Fireline put in by beavers on the B&B Complex in Oregon. 2003 photo by Tom Jones.
Fireline put in by beavers on the B&B Complex in Oregon. 2003 photo by Tom Jones.
Robert Alvarado at Marion Lake on the B&B Complex in Oregon. 2003 photo by Tom Jones.
Robert Alvarado at Marion Lake on the B&B Complex in Oregon. 2003 photo by Tom Jones.
FBAN Tom Jones with the NWOregon type 2 team in September 2003 on the B&B Complex. Photo by Robert Alvarado.
FBAN Tom Jones with the NW Oregon type 2 team in September 2003 on the B&B Complex. Photo by Robert Alvarado. (I didn’t know there were crocodiles in Marion Lake, did you?)

from Wikipedia:  The B&B Complex was a linked pair of wildfires that together burned 90,769 acres (367.33 km2) in  Oregon in the summer of 2003. The complex began as two separate fires, the Bear Butte Fire and the Booth Fire; the two fires were reported on the same day and eventually burned together, forming a single fire area that stretched along the crest of the Cascade Mountains between Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Washington. On the western side of the Cascades, the fire consumed mostly Douglas-fir and western hemlock. On the eastern side of the mountains, the fire burned mostly Ponderosa pine, lodgepole, and jack pine. Most of the burned area was on USFS land, including 40,419 acres (163.57 km2) within the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness. The fire also burned forest land on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation and small areas of state and private land. Firefighters worked on the fires for 34 days.

THANKS, Tom, for the great photos and another
piece of Beaver history in the Beaver State!
 ~ Kelly Andersson

 

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15 thoughts on “Humans mimicking beavers to combat wildfires and restore wetlands”

  1. Thanks, Hunter, for the great info on the importance of beavers and their habitat. Ben Goldfarb’s 2018 book “Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter” is a very complete history of beavers, beaver restoration projects and their present situation. Ben is a fascinating writer who just published his second book “Crossings: How Road Ecology Is Shaping The Future Of Our Planet”.
    https://www.bengoldfarb.com/eager

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    1. THANKS RICK, for the book recommendation; I just ordered one.
      “In Eager, environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb reveals that our modern idea of what a healthy landscape looks like and how it functions is wrong, distorted by the fur trade that once trapped out millions of beavers from North America’s lakes and rivers. The consequences of losing beavers were profound: streams eroded, wetlands dried up, and species from salmon to swans lost vital habitat.

      • WINNER of the 2019 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
      • Washington Post: “50 Notable Works of Nonfiction”
      • Science News: “Favorite Science Books of 2018”
      • Booklist “Top Ten Science/Technology Book of 2018”
      • “A marvelously humor-laced page-turner about the science of semi-aquatic rodents … A masterpiece of a treatise on the natural world.” — The Washington Post
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  2. Back in the early 1970s I was a USFS Fire Prevention Patrolman. They gave us Smokey Bear CFFP materials to hand out to the kiddies. One item was a comic book about the beavers parachuting in to meadows to build beaver dams. I think the last one of those comics I saw was in 1995

    In 2003 I was on the B and B Fire in Oregon. I have some photos of the fire stopping in one area due to a beaver dam.

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  3. A beaver dam on a stream feeding the East Fork of the Hood River broke in heavy rain in about 1980, taking out several bridges and killing at least one from the resulting flash flood. Beware!

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      1. Shawn,
        I wish I could provide a definitive response. The following USGS report that was published about 4 years after the fact may shed some light, although evidence of a beaver dam would have been obliterated in the flood.
        https://pubs.usgs.gov/wsp/2273/report.pdf

        It states, “Young, even-aged riparian communities of pioneer tree species, such as alder and willow,” which you know are perfect for beaver habitation.
        Bottom line is that my USFS forester supervisor had told me about the beaver dam filling a large canyon in this exact location about two weeks prior to the catastrophic flood. There is no doubt that there was a rock flow immediately behind the dam (which would also have eliminated any evidence of its having been there) but I think the already sizable beaver dam and its huge collection of water greatly contributed to the enormous volume of floodwaters.

        My supervisor never reported the dam (maybe because he wasn’t authorized to be in the wildlife area) and he took his life several months later. Oh, the flooding originated about 1 or 2 miles from my ranger station. I didn’t work winter seasons at the time. That’s all I got. The one person killed was an acquaintance of mine. The USGS report makes for interesting reading. Hope this helps.

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        1. Just read quickly through the report. I was especially interested in your comment because our friends just retired to Hood River and we were up there for a few great days this summer.
          Based on your memory, it certainly sounds like a beaver pond might have triggered or exacerbated the flood, though heavy rains in the basin were a bigger factor than just the beaver dam.

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          1. Exactly. I suspect the massive accumulation of water previous to the heavy rains contributed heavily to the tremendous, sudden voluminous flow of floodwaters. My brother, returning home from my cabin, was the last vehicle crossing the bridge at Toll Bridge Park on Baseline Rd. before it washed out. He barely made it across.

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  4. A creek runs across my property. Several years ago, beavers built a dam across it which they keep well-maintained. I have a submersible solar pump in the creek which they have never bothered and which I use to raise water 30 feet to my garden. If it wasn’t for the beavers, I wouldn’t have access to my deeded irrigation water.

    I’ve seen the beavers only once down there, but there are daily signs that they’re floating shoots and branches down from upstream to work into the dam structure. I love seeing the dam get higher and wider, and how they pitty/pat mud on top to hold the layers together.

    I wonder why, when beavers are clearly working to benefit our riparian areas, they aren’t protected from trappers.

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    1. @Sass Thank you so much for your comment! I am incredibly envious of your set up. I have had a criminally low amount of interactions in-person with beavers and I need to amend that ASAP.

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        1. sweeeeeeet. You just made my day, girl. I recently bought EAGER: The Secret Life of Beavers, by Ben Goldfarb, as was recommended here in the comments … haven’t started it yet because I’m still halfway through a different book, but I seriously look forward to it. and THANKS for letting us know about this ODFW news!

          EAGER

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