Beavers, Water, and Fire—A New Formula for Success

November 6, 2018

National Wildlife Federation Blog: Low-tech stream restoration works wonders for people and wildlife

The following excerpt is from a blog written by Brianna Randall for the National Wildlife Federation

Conservation partners increasingly work with nature to heal streams. Rather than big, expensive construction equipment, they’re using more cost-effective, low-tech methods.

Some of these methods recreate the work that was once performed over large parts of our country by beavers, and simultaneously prepare the landscape for beavers to move back in. These include, but are not limited to:

The NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative partnered with Utah State University to host field training workshops around the West to teach resource managers how to build low-tech restoration structures to repair streams.

The NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative partnered with Utah State University to host training workshops around the West that taught resource managers how to build low-tech stream restoration structures.

Blue collar conservation

Low-tech restoration approaches are less risky, less expensive, and easier to install than traditional highly-engineered restoration projects.

Since the best practice is to use natural, locally-sourced ingredients to feed the stream, such as branches from recently cut trees, turf and mud, or existing rocks, the materials are often already on site…and free!

“We think of low-tech restoration as ‘blue collar conservation’ because anyone can build these structures,” explains Jeremy Maestas, an ecologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “That means we get more people involved in conservation, plus we can repair more streams in need.”

And, importantly, these “emerald refuges” provide valuable wildlife habitat during wildfires, which are burning more frequently and more intensely across western landscapes.

Beaver ponds provide a refuge for fish and wildlife in a burned landscape near Hailey, Idaho. Photo: Joe Wheaton

Beaver ponds provide a refuge for fish and wildlife in a burned landscape near Hailey, Idaho. Photo: Joe Wheaton

Water doesn’t burn

Ranchers have plenty of anecdotal stories of wildlife and livestock flocking to wet, green places when wildfires sweep across the West.

Recent wildfires in the West proved that wet habitat is invaluable as a refuge, and possibly as a firebreak, too: the only remaining green areas amidst miles of scorched rangeland were active beaver ponds that kept the flames at bay.

“Beavers and beaver dam analogs make a lot of sense for mitigating impacts during a fire,” says Joe Wheaton, Associate Professor and Fluvial Geomorphologist at Utah State University.

It also makes sense to incorporate low-tech stream restoration into post-fire recovery efforts as a tool to protect and improve existing wet habitat. For instance, the Bureau of Land Management is planning to build low-tech structures to accelerate riparian recovery and mitigate mudslides during runoff after the Goose Creek Fire in Utah.

Beaver ponds provide an “emerald refuge” in a landscape burned by the Sharps Fire, Idaho. Photo: Joe Wheaton

Beaver ponds provide an “emerald refuge” in a landscape burned by the Sharps Fire, Idaho. Photo: Joe Wheaton

In northeast Nevada where the South Sugarloaf Fire scorched 230,000 acres this summer, the U.S. Forest Service is planning to use low-tech restoration to protect critical habitats that didn’t burn from potential damage during post-fire runoff and debris flows.

Similarly, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is using low-tech restoration not just to protect critical habitats post-fire, but also to aid in ecosystem recovery on the recent Sharps Fire near Hailey.

In all these examples, the agencies hope to also study the effectiveness of low-tech restoration and to document the vegetation response at restored sites versus unrestored control sites.

“If we’re making a difference at a scale that matters, then we should be able to see the positive impacts of low-tech stream restoration from space,” says Maestas.

Especially, he adds, as restored wet places stay greener longer.

Read the full NWF blog >

Low-Tech Riparian And Meadow Restoration Keeps Rangelands Greener Longer

What Is Low-Tech Stream Restoration?

Starter Guide For Healing Degraded Meadows With Hand-Built Structures In Sagebrush Country

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.