Busy mammals support clean water, fire protection and climate response
As we approached, he asked me, “Can you smell that? We are getting close.”
Kent Woodruff, a wildlife biologist with the US Forest Service, was referring to the musky odor given off by a colony of beavers recently established on Woody Creek in the lower Methow River watershed.
The distinctive smell indicates beavers are busy and present as we approach the ponds.
In the fall of 2014, with the help of staff and volunteers, Kent released three beaver pairs in three separate streams in Black Canyon as a part of the Methow Beaver Project.
Returning in spring, Kent and his team found all of the beavers had survived the winter, and even created a dam or two.
On a crisp day this fall, Kent and I discovered seven or more dams at each established site. These dams formed a series of large deep ponds lined with wetland and riparian plants, including fresh sprouts of aspen, an important food for beaver.
Kent couldn’t have been happier with the results.
“In my entire career, I could not have hoped for a more meaningful and lasting legacy,” he said.
To date, the project has established beaver families in 39 locations (329 animals) in the Methow watershed. The results are especially significant considering that just three months earlier the Twisp River Fire roared through this area, killing almost all of the above-ground vegetation in many of these drainages.
Evidence of the burn can be seen along the edges of the newly created beaver ponds, but not always on both sides. This suggests beaver ponds may act as fire breaks, making them an important feature in dry, fire-prone forests. One beaver pond was even used by firefighters as a source of water to fight the Twisp River Fire.
Beaver ponds store millions of gallons of water
As we drove across the charred landscape, Kent discussed how important this work is.
“These beaver establishments are an important tool in our adaption to climate change,” he said. “We don’t have time to wait until all the science is in, we have to be bold and we have to act now.”
Beaver dams are much more than meets the eye. An average beaver dam can store 1.1 million gallons (3.5 acre feet) of water per pond, researchers concluded in an Ecology funded Beaver Pond Storage Study, completed by The Lands Council.
They measured above ground water storage at 12 beaver complexes in 29 ponds in the Columbia Basin. While impressive enough, Kent stated that for every pond, as much as 6.7 million gallons of water is also stored underground.
To paint a picture, the average American uses 80-100 gallons of water per day, or 29,200-36,500 gallons per year. This means that the amount of water stored above and below ground by the average beaver pond in just one year could supply a person with water for 211 years!
This natural water storage system slowly releases cold, clean water downstream throughout hot summers while other streams without beavers often go dry. In addition, beaver dams capture sediment, decrease the impact of debris flows, expand riparian habitat and stream shade, and increase wildlife and fish habitat.
These benefits make beavers a powerful restoration tool, often more effective in the long-term than other restoration methods, such as installing physical structures like large woody debris or rock barbs.
No missed opportunity to educate
Kent doesn’t miss an opportunity to increase our understanding of the importance of having beavers in our watersheds. He greets people by name everywhere he goes, stopping to tell them about the Methow beavers and why they are so valuable. He also shares his enthusiasm with school kids and presents information at conferences throughout the Northwest and across the nation.
The methodology that has been developed here to trap, house, relocate, and track beavers is so successful that 65 volunteers came to the Methow Watershed this year to help and learn. This includes an international graduate student who will use what she learns to help establish beavers near her home in England.
In addition, Kent and his colleagues have released The Beaver Restoration Guidebook, a wealth of information and experience on the benefits of beavers, relocation methods, and managing unwanted beavers. It also has a section on Beaver Dam Analogues (BDAs) that mimic the function of beaver dams, especially in streams that have lost the vegetation to support beavers. Designed by Michael Pollock and several associates, BDAs are often used in streams that have lost the vegetation needed to support beavers.
Next year, with assistance from an Ecology Water Quality grant, the Okanogan Highlands Alliance will install 27 BDAs in the severally incised Myers Creek at the base of the Buckhorn Mountain. While the BDAs function like beaver dams, by capturing sediment and raising the water table, they also need annual maintenance. The hope is that a reconnected floodplain will allow the vegetation growth needed to return beavers and render the BDAs unnecessary.
Water quality grant helps to continue monitoring
Back in the Methow, Kent hopes to quantify the water quality benefits of beaver dams through a monitoring program that is also supported by an Ecology Water Quality Financial Assistance grant.
“In cooperation with leading northwest scientists and Department of Ecology experts, we designed a very rigorous monitoring program to examine how beavers benefit water quality in eastside streams in Washington,” he said.
He also notes that the past two extreme fire years will provide important information about the effects of fire in complicated systems. “In the months and years ahead, monitoring results will inform us as we wrestle with how to respond to the very real impacts of climate change across the West”, he said.
For now, though, Kent and his crew work to return beavers to streams where they were once abundant, and help others imagine how they may improve their own watersheds in similar ways. It is a passion that keeps him going every day.
Click here to watch a video of a beaver pair at the Methow Beaver Project holding area inside the US Fish and Wildlife Service Winthrop National Fish Hatchery.
Watch a video here by The Lands Council for more info on the benefits of beaver.