Voyage of the Dammed

Nature’s engineers — and environmental heroes — make a comeback

  • 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
 

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Water shortages, worsened by climate change and population growth, provided impetus for this Liberty Lake conference. Facing demands for more storable water in a semiarid region, for instance, Washington's governors and the state Legislature have pushed the Columbia River Initiative since 2002, calling for a mix of new water projects and conservation. The state Department of Ecology's Office of the Columbia River is involved, funded in 2006 with $200 million for its first 10 years. Those efforts have prompted ambitious proposals for constructing gargantuan new manmade impoundment dams.

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 2 and 4 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.

Oregon illustrates the conflicts. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife notes many benefits to having beaver in the landscape, even as the Oregon Department of Agriculture recently reclassified beaver as a predator. Hearing this, the folks at the conference laugh. "Do (beaver) take out peg-legged people?" Pollock wonders.

The "predator" classification allows Oregon landowners to kill beaver without getting a permit first or notifying anyone about the numbers killed. Charlie Ernst, a soft-spoken, fourth-generation rancher in central Oregon's Tygh Ridge, near Dufur, is changing that mindset by letting beaver re-colonize his 5,700 acres of dryland wheat and cattle pasture.

"My grandfather killed beaver. My uncle killed beaver. I never understood what the problem was. It always looked like a benefit to me," says Ernst, who stopped the trapping about 15 years ago.

Ernst has aerial photos that show the change along the seven miles of Dry Creek that meander across his land. "The landscape with no beaver looks like a lunar landscape. With beaver, you need a machete. It's that thick," Ernst says.

Dry Creek used to run with water only a few days in spring. Now, with 20 beaver dams, it runs for months.

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