Beaver waiting for relocationPhoto by Earthfire Institute

Beavers are charming and fascinating creatures. Dr. Donald Griffin, the father of animal cognition, notes, “When we think of the kinds of animal behavior that suggest conscious thinking, the beaver comes naturally to mind.” They perform their incredible engineering feats not just through instinct, but through imitation and experience. But even more than that they are incredibly important ecologically, a fact we have belatedly recognized. Called nature’s finest wetland engineer, professional human water engineers study them for water management. Beavers reliably, and economically, maintain wetlands that sponge up floodwaters, alleviate droughts and floods, lessen erosion, raise the water table and act as the “earth’s kidneys.”

Their ability to change the landscape is second only to humans—much of the American landscape has been created by their work. American Indians called the beaver the “sacred center” of the land because they create cradles of life—rich, watery habitat that supports biodiversity that rivals that of tropical rainforests. Deer and elk frequent beaver ponds to forage on shrubby plants that grow where beavers cut down trees for food or use to make their dams and lodges. Weasels, raccoons, and herons hunt fish, frogs, and other prey along the marshy edges of beaver ponds. Migratory waterbirds use beaver ponds as nesting areas and resting stops during migration. Ducks and geese often nest on top of beaver lodges since they offer warmth and protection, especially when lodges are formed in the middle of a pond. The trees that die as a result of rising water levels attract insects, which in turn feed woodpeckers, whose holes later provide homes for other wildlife.

Two beavers on a dam

Beavers on a dam | Enrique Aguirre

Almost half of endangered and threatened species in North America rely upon freshwater wetlands, which have been rated as the world’s most valuable land-based ecosystem. Beavers also contribute to ecological succession: when they abandon their lodges and dams, aquatic plants take over the pond. Eventually, shrubs and other plants grow, and the area becomes a meadow. The shrubs in the meadow will provide enough shade to allow tree seedlings to grow. Once the trees grow, they will take over, and the land will turn into woods.

In addition to their intelligence (and excellent work habits), they are known to be gentle, affectionate creatures. An Indian word for “beaver-like” means affable. They are intensely family-oriented, and mate for life. But when they do what they do, they may inconvenience humans who don’t take kindly to their expensive landscape being cut down or their land being flooded. They are often labeled “nuisance” creatures, trapped and killed. But, some owners don’t want to kill them. They contact Idaho Fish and Game to ask their help.

Until now, Fish and Game had no place to hold the trapped beavers while they found a place to relocate them where they would not only do no harm, but actually restore the landscape. Because they are so family-oriented, beavers don’t do well unless the whole family is relocated. And trapping a whole family takes time.

Idaho Fish and Game has asked Earthfire if we would provide a temporary holding pond for trapped beavers. We jumped at the chance to help. We have the land, the water, and the willingness. By building and operating the beaver pond, Earthfire becomes an integral part of the Upper Snake River Beaver Coop and their mission: “.. to recognize that beavers are great eco-engineers and a great asset when dealing with climate change and declining stream flows.” Earthfire will be cooperating with representatives from the Forest Service, BLM, The Nature Conservancy, and Idaho Fish & Game. The four goals of the Coop are:

  • Better understand beaver populations in the watershed
  • Determine the status of their habitat
  • Selectively relocate beaver to select sites to improve downstream storage. They can help us store water in the upper watershed for slow release during the summer rather than all at once
  • Provide information and support landowners

We didn’t know where we would find the funds, but you just don’t pass up an opportunity to build a working partnership with the primary wildlife management organization in the state. This is a major direction we want to go toward. And although we knew it would be costly, we just had to say yes. 

See pictures of our beaver pond project below.

(Click to enlarge)

 

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