Voyage of the Dammed

Nature's engineers -- and environmental heroes -- make a comeback

  • Mark Gocke
  • Beavers' "precision logging" of aspen trees into upper Tasha Creek in Fishlake National Forest, Utah.

    Photo courtesy Mary O'Brien
  • A newly constructed beaver dam, made possible because only sheep -- not cattle -- graze along the streams. Mary O'Brien of Grand Canyon Trust is working toward getting cows removed from the entire 5-mile stretch Tasha Creek, to make way for more dams.

    Photo courtesy Mary O'Brien
  • The beavers are back in Dry Creek on Charlie Ernst's 5,700 acres in central Oregon. The creek used to run with water only a few days in the spring. Now, with 20 beaver dams, it runs for months.

    Josh Thompson, Wasco County
  • Felix Aripa, a Coeur d'Alene tribal elder

    Kevin Taylor
  • Michael Pollock, with NOAA Fisheries

    Kevin Taylor
  • Mary O'Brien, with Grand Canyon Trust

    Tim Clark


Even with a tall wooden cross mounted on the wall behind her, Mary O'Brien doesn't look like a typical preacher. In her blue cardigan and jeans, a single heavy braid falling like a gray rope down her back, she paces slowly from side to side, telling her listeners that we are worshipping a false landscape.

She means the West of fast-flowing streams and invitingly open banks, celebrated in photographs and songs and pickup truck commercials. That West is a modern illusion, she warns, even though we accept it as gospel and praise its beauty.

Several dozen people lean forward in the burnt-orange pews, intently focusing on O'Brien's message.

We have lost touch with a truer, older West, she goes on. But there is a savior who can lead us back to it: the beaver.

Castor canadensis, believe it or not, is a time shifter. The humble, hardworking rodent, through its dams and ponds, can extend the release of water late into summer, saturating the ground and healing watersheds. It has the power to re-create the primordial, wetter West that existed for millennia -- a West we just missed seeing.

"Restoration of the beaver is restoration of a landscape we don't have a cultural connection to," O'Brien says, "because they largely were trapped out."

Let us repent.

Beaver are a keystone species: Amen. Beaver restore riparian habitat: Amen. Beaver raise up the water table: Amen. Beaver show us the Western landscape as it was just prior to permanent white settlement. A big amen for this.

"You're not just preaching to the choir," someone sings out. "We are actually in the pews!"

O'Brien, a commandingly tall and angular woman who's a Grand Canyon Trust project manager, helped organize this "Working Beaver Conference." The setting -- creaky old Zephyr Lodge on Liberty Lake, just east of Spokane -- is a Christian-run conference center, which explains the pews and the cross.

About 70 enthusiasts in the lonely world of beaver restoration -- including hydrologists, biologists and economists -- have come from around the West for two days of workshops, slideshows and the rare chance to meet like-minded others. Storm-darkened springtime skies cast a gloomy light, but the talk crackles furiously.

North America had at least 60 million beaver before European settlement, according to the most-commonly cited estimate. Explorer David Thompson walked across much of the continent about 200 years ago and observed that it was "in the possession of two distinct races of beings, man and the beaver."

Historical trapping records in the Colorado Rockies show "60 to 80 beaver" per mile of stream, says Trey Schillie, an ecosystem services analyst for the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region. That abundance was repeated across the West.

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."

Article: Voyage of the Dammed
Elaina Graham
Elaina Graham
Jun 02, 2009 10:22 PM
WOW. This is the kind of revealing "I didn't know that was going on!" article I for which I read High Country News. I have always loved beaver, and so does my husband, who used to trap them years ago and knows pretty much everything there is to know about their anatomy and habits. We go on beaver-watching expeditions regularly, and I have a marvelous collection of perfectly straight, debarked walking sticks, decorated with beaver tooth marks and tapered at both ends, that I have pulled out of beaver dams over the years. I've always known, on a high-school biology sort of level, that the work of beavers creates and shapes beneficial habitat. The historical population numbers quoted in the article, however, quite shocked me. And I had absolutely no idea there was this organized, grass-roots effort going on to rediscover the beaver as an ecological restoration component. How very exciting! I will collect all the latest research to help me convince my ranching neighbors to invite the beavers back into their creeks. Thanks, HCN, for this inspiring and somewhat surprising bit of news.
beavers are amazing
Jun 03, 2009 12:49 PM
It's about time people started realizing the benefits of beaver habitat. These are intelligent, industrious, monogamous animals from whom we have much to learn. Please spread this article far and wide.
Beaver resource
Kevin Taylor
Kevin Taylor
Jun 03, 2009 07:59 PM

The Lands Council in Spokane has a page on their website to collect beaver-related research and projects. You can find it at:
Bob Rogers
Bob Rogers
Jun 03, 2009 09:28 PM
I used to fish for native brook trout on Dolly Sods in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia near Petersburg. The beaver dams made the fishing possible, opened up the flag spruce and aspen (yes, that far east and south)for a more diverse ecosystem. Nobody bothered to trap them, in the late 1860's. I hope they are still there.

Now I'll start looking for them in the mountains of SE Arizona.
minor correction
Jun 08, 2009 02:35 PM
Nice story and an interesting read. One minor correction is that the evidence suggests that beaver shaped the valleys rather than formed them, or more specifically, shaped the valley floors. Glaciation and/or erosion formed the valleys.
New Mexico is using beaver for restoration and climate change adaptation
Cathryn Wild
Cathryn Wild
Jun 09, 2009 04:18 PM
Seventh Generation Institute, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Santa Fe New Mexico, is leading a statewide project to increase the distribution and abundance of beaver. The ultimate goals are to restore historically degraded aquatic/riparian/wetland systems and equally, to protect these systems against the additional impacts anticipated from climate change. More information on this project available at

Need a beaver tee shirt? Coming to our website soon....
The flip side...
Socratic Gadfly
Socratic Gadfly
Jun 09, 2009 08:38 PM
Per a New York Times story June 9 (I think, didn't bookmark) back east, beavers in urban areas, or near them, are wreaking havoc, in terms of causing floods, etc.
New Mexico Also Providing Agencies and Landowners with Nonlethal Solutions to Beaver Issues
Debbie Risberg
Debbie Risberg
Jun 10, 2009 03:51 PM
For several years, Animal Protection of New Mexico has been providing wildlife agencies, landowners, and others with information about nonlethal solutions to beaver issues so that we can coexist with them, and everyone reaps the benefits of these amazing flat-tailed rodents. We have had workshops on how to build flow devices, which essentially create a leak in a beaver dam, allowing water to flow and beavers to remain. They are very effective, cost-effective, and a humane way to deal with beavers. We work a lot with NM Department of Game and Fish to encourage them to promote such solutions when they get depredation calls, and we jointly created a brochure with the Department. Please see for the online version of the brochure; our website,[…]/Problems_solutions.php, for more information; and check out our online beaver forum at here we provide many articles, links, contacts, and any other information related to the importance of beavers and nonlethal mitigation measures.
Trevor Hare
Trevor Hare
Jun 10, 2009 04:01 PM
I love beavers and fully realize how important they are for the restoration of the west's riparian areas, however beaver dams can also have negative impacts on our ability to restore healthy populations of native frogs and garter snakes by providing breeding habitat for bullfrogs. All beaver reintroduction and management plans should address this issue and herpetologists must be consulted.
Terry Lee
Terry Lee
Jun 13, 2009 05:08 AM
I have developed the following hypothesis based on my 25 years of experience as a water resources manager in southeastern Minnesota: 1)beaver are ecosystem engineers capable of completely altering stream ecology, 2)beaver dominated all but the largest streams in North America during most of the last million years, 3)most native stream and riparian species are still genetically programmed to lifecycles dependent upon, or at least adapted to, beaver-created habitat, 4)restoration of native stream ecosystems requires beaver, and 5)beaver have historically and continue to provide essential ecosystem services for the benefit of humans.
Beavers are best...
Spaceman Spiff
Spaceman Spiff
Jun 17, 2009 04:11 PM
Nice summary Terry Lee.
I'm a fly fisherman and I love the work beavers do. Nothing like hiking along a high country stream and coming across a fat beaver pond. You just know there are some big trout in there!
Also, they sound like a great way to restore watersheds, low cost, and environmentally sound. Low tech ways are often the best, but people tend to overlook them in this fast paced age we live in.
Trade live beavers for fresh veggies?
Richard Lodge
Richard Lodge
Jun 22, 2009 01:10 PM
Very interesting story, made all the more striking by the contrast to what's going on in Massachusetts. About a decade ago voters here voted to ban leg-hold traps, which effectively killed the practice of trapping beavers. The beavers reveled in their new, safer environment and have been moving into areas of Massachusetts where they once flourished. The result has been ongoing battles in some communities between busy beavers and homeowners concerned about flooding of their property, roads, and, in some cases, contamination of drinking water wells.
It's now illegal for private landowners to kill or relocate beavers. Local boards of health have to give approval for a landowner to hire a licensed trapper to kill the beaver, since relocating them elsewhere in the Bay State only puts the "problem" in someone else's backyard.
Perhaps a trade can be arranged? We can ship live beavers west and you folks can send us the latest harvest?
Here are links to a couple of our recent stories about beavers:


Ray Ring
Ray Ring
Jun 23, 2009 10:18 AM
... for the Eastern update and links, Richard.
What is the Beaver Solution? Check Out The Lands Council's New Video
Anne Martin
Anne Martin
Jul 22, 2009 03:42 PM
Check out The Beaver Solution Video on YouTube -

The Lands Council’s New Video to Promote Benefits of
Restoring Beavers in Eastern Washington
A cute, fuzzy beaver is the lead character in a new cartoon short produced by Hamilton Studio and Klündt | Hosmer for The Beaver Solution: The Lands Council’s campaign to promote the benefits of restoring beavers in Eastern Washington as an alternative to large new water storage dams in the Columbia River Basin.

You can view the video at:

What is The Beaver Solution? Simply put, it is allowing beavers to do what they do naturally; build dams and store water, which slowly releases to increase flows in the late summer. After hearing that the Washington State Department of Ecology was investigating several locations to build large new dams on canyon tributaries to the Columbia River to store early spring runoff and release it late in the summer, The Lands Council proposed a unique alternative – The Beaver Solution – reintroducing beavers to build dams to store spring runoff. Beaver dams also create wetland areas that retain rain and snowmelt, trap sediment making streams cleaner, increase ground water levels, and create habitat for fish and wildlife. To read more go to:

For more information contact: Brian Walker, Watershed Program Director at