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:
- Weaving branches through wooden fence posts to mimic beaver dams and create ponds to encourage beavers to recolonize an area.
- Placing clumps of woody debris in the channel to slow stream flow and add habitat complexity.
- Building stone features that heal incised gullies by reducing erosion and encouraging plants to grow.
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.
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.
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.
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.