At a recent SGI-sponsored workshop, practitioners from around the West learned from beavers about how to heal streams and store water longer on the range. See the photos and read more.
Photo: NRCS field staff enjoy their restoration work during an SGI-sponsored workshop in Logan, Utah. Christina Santana (Basin Biologist, OR), Logan Jensen (Engineer, NV), and Trisha Cracroft (State Biologist, ID). Photo: Jeremy Maestas
In dry sagebrush country, water is as good as gold. Neither ranchers nor wildlife can survive without it. Sage grouse hens, for instance, need reliably wet areas to feed their chicks as the summer heat dries desert soils. The water creates “green groceries” for these birds — the forbs and insects that help them grow and thrive. Recent SGI-funded research shows the important role these habitats play in the distribution and abundance of sage grouse.
Through SGI 2.0, NRCS has committed to work with landowners and partners to help protect and restore wet meadows, riparian areas, and other “mesic habitats” over the next four years. As part of our strategy, we’re looking for simple and low-cost alternatives for restoring these habitats to benefit sage grouse and private agricultural operations.
One emerging cost-effective technique that improves water availability and expands mesic habitat is called a “beaver dam analogue” (BDA). BDA’s are hand-built structures that mimic natural beaver dam activity, reconnecting stream channels to floodplains and restoring degraded habitats.
Once widespread, beavers are nature’s ultimate ecosystem engineers — they help accelerate stream recovery and keep water on the landscape longer. Their dams slow down moving water, storing it in ponds that also capture sediment, raise the water table, and put more water up on adjacent floodplains. These beaver-built ponds are able to capture spring snowmelt and then release it slowly throughout the course of the summer, which in turn nourishes vegetation later in the season when everything else on the range is dry.
Last month, SGI convened a cadre of 40 interdisciplinary field staff in Logan, Utah for a three-day workshop exploring beaver ecology and BDAs as a low-cost restoration tool for enhancing mesic habitat resilience in sagebrush ecosystems. NRCS teamed up with Dr. Joe Wheaton and other scientists in his lab at Utah State University to conduct the workshop.
“We spent a few days taking tips from Mother Nature on how to heal riparian systems,” explains Jeremy Maestas, NRCS Sagebrush Ecosystem Specialist.
Participants walked around in active beaver ponds to better understand what they do to the system and also looked at places where beaver were absent to envision what might be possible with restoration. “One of our participants said it was like being handed a pair of polarized sunglasses for the first time and seeing the stream in a totally different light,” said Maestas.
Rancher Jay Wilde hosted part of the workshop on his U.S. Forest Service allotment. Wilde explained that the stream used to flow year-round to his private land below the allotment but now it dries up. He suspects this water loss is due to the lack of beavers, which used to be active in the watershed a couple decades ago. Workshop participants spent a day on Wilde’s USFS allotment building BDAs to encourage beavers — and water — to stick around longer.
BDAs are simple structures created by driving wooden posts into the stream and then threading willow branches between the posts to mimic a beaver dam. The goal is to kickstart the system’s natural processes. Ideally, beavers then pitch in and take over maintenance. Jay’s son, Casey, and his granddaughter, Emily, (both pictured below) also participated in the workshop to learn how to heal the habitat that sustains their ranching operations.
“We call this ‘cheap and cheerful’ restoration because it’s inexpensive yet effective when compared to traditional techniques. Plus, anyone can help do it!” said Wheaton.
Partners across the West have started using BDAs, and early results are promising. In Oregon, scientists placed BDAs in a creek to help steelhead, an at-risk fish species, recover. By 2013, just four years after the structures were built, beavers had built 171 dams in the watershed and scientists recorded a 175 percent increase in juvenile steelhead production. Beaver dams anchored to the BDAs raised the water level, creating large pools, spreading water out onto the adjacent floodplain, and giving rise to more streamside vegetation, side channels, and backwaters.
We recognize that beavers are not practical additions to all landscapes or properties on the range, and also work with with landowners and partners to explore other low-cost wet meadow restoration techniques. While enhancing mesic habitats for sage grouse broods is one of SGI’s key conservation objectives, our overarching goal is to help landowners implement practices that boost riparian and meadow function and make them more resilient to drought. SGI field staff have also learned about Zeedyk structures, consisting of hand-placed rock and wood (like this project in Colorado’s Gunnison Basin), and management-based approaches such as grazing strategies that improve riparian and wet meadow areas.
All of these different mesic restoration practices benefit ranchers and a host of wildlife species in the sagebrush sea.