Earth Week Day 2: Beavers
April 18, 2023
One of the most common discussions surrounding the conservation of watersheds is how to manage and cooperate with local beaver populations. Beavers can easily be painted in a negative light due to their constant interference with the irrigation systems and river systems of landowners who need water sources to flow through their properties in specific ways. However, if you work alongside the beavers and put the extra effort in to meet their needs in addition to their own, it is possible that beavers can actually serve to benefit your property. Today we’re going to do a deep dive on beaver management, how they benefit natural ecosystems, and how they can help river systems thrive.
The Natural Benefits of Beavers
A big reason why we talk about beavers so much when addressing polluted or impaired rivers is that their dams provide natural complexity to the watershed. A healthy watershed needs to be both connected to its floodplain and have a diverse array of habitats for all of the species that rely on it. A beaver dam achieves both of these goals, because stopping most of the water creates a deep pool in front of the dam, and also forces the river to change directions by shaping new pathways. The dams also force the water to the sides, which is where the wider river floodplain is. Floodplain connectivity allows the river to create wetland habitats for more species, and helps to keep the water cleaner. An additional benefit of beavers in certain ecosystems is that the trees that they cut down leaves open space in the forest canopy, allowing sunlight to reach the river and increase riparian plant growth in heavily forested areas.
It’s also worth noting that the benefits of beaver dams are so valuable to watersheds that it is common for watershed workers to implement Beaver Dam Analogs (BDAs) to accomplish the same goals. If an area doesn’t have any beavers, BDAs can function as a worthwhile substitute as they directly emulate the structure of a beaver dam. They may not be as effective as actual beaver dams- because the construction of BDAs is not as meticulous or as consistently maintained- but they can still introduce new complexity to streams. It’s also not unheard of for beavers to be translocated to BDAs, where they can continue to improve the provided structure. Beaver’s are nature’s engineers, and they’re so good at their jobs that we openly copy their techniques for the sake of conservation!
The Pros and Cons of Having Beavers On Your Property
So despite all of the benefits that a beaver can provide to a natural ecosystem, considering how they impact people who rely on river systems to flow a certain way can be a bit more complicated. After all, people, food crops and live stock stay much more in one place than anything in nature, and managing land often depends upon river access that is consistent and predictable. Beavers could also end up flooding cropland if they build their dams in inconvenient places, or they might cut off water sources for landowners altogether. Some infrastructures, such as roadways, stormwater facilities. However, it is possible to control the location and actions of local beaver families to a certain extent if necessary, and managing them correctly can actually make water sources perform better than ever before!
If you can successfully integrate a beaver dam onto your property, you will have the advantage of all the aforementioned benefits that beavers can provide to rivers. As a result, you will see more biodiversity on your property, which will provide you with more natural resources in return. Floodplain connectivity will also allow the water to be filtered more by the soils that it comes in contact with, which will make it cleaner. Additional benefits to your property will include healthier soils and higher river flows, more bank line vegetation, better environments for fish populations, cooler waters during the summer and more climate resiliency! There are certainly many other benefits a beaver can bring to your property depending on what you are using the land for; there are many historic accounts of early American farmers and ranchers who understood the importance of keeping beavers on their properties. Now that we know how helpful or harmful beavers can be to your property, let’s look into the best and worst strategies for maintaining a good relationship with the beavers.
Beaver Management Strategies
The ideal solutions to having property damage caused by beavers involve finding ways to benefit from keeping the beavers on your property. That way, the beavers can continue to live safely in their preferred habitat without causing any unintentional harm to you and your land. The following proposed solutions are all generally trying to help you achieve those goals.
One of your concerns may be centered on ensuring that your trees don’t get cut down by the beavers, as it is a natural habit of beavers to fell trees and use them for their dams and for food. In this case, gather dead trunks of beavers’ preferred species of trees, and stick them into the ground. Beavers will habitually cut these trees down instead of your live trees if the species is more preferred by them. You can further protect your live trees by setting up fenced enclosures around them, discouraging beavers from going after those trees. If there are too many trees to protect within the area of the beaver dam, or they are too disruptive to your waterways at their current location, you can consider relocating the beavers to a different, preferred area. However, only do this with diligent monitoring and maybe a previously built Beaver Dam Analog so that the family can settle into their home more quickly.
Additional measures could be taken by altering your waterways with culverts or engineering, manipulating the water in such a way that it returns to going in the direction that you need it to go without disturbing the beaver dam upstream. These types of alterations are not easy to make, and should absolutely not be made until getting a 310 permit approved with your local conservation districts and consulting with an expert. Such resources are always worth consulting when you’re considering working with wildlife on your property for the first time.
When working with beavers, it is best to avoid more drastic or direct measures if at all possible. The biggest cause of beaver deaths in the US is trapping. Not only is trapping hugely harmful to beaver populations, but traps are also extremely elaborate and much more expensive than many of the solutions listed above. Translocation of beavers is a possible solution, but it should only be treated as a last resort if the presence of beavers on your property will be largely harmful to you or your business. Contact your local wildlife departments (FWP, Trout Unlimited) to discuss the possibility of beaver translocation. Translocation should not be performed unprofessionally, as beavers need access to an area with the appropriate resources or a previously built Beaver Dam Analog for them to have safety from predators.
This concludes our diaLOGue about beavers! We hope this lecture didn’t DAMpen your perspective on these massive mammals, and instead only served to enTAIL an image of a smart, helpful and adorable population of little engineers! See you tomorrow!