Low tech riparian restoration hits the ground in Idaho

November 6, 2019

Beaver dam analogue in Idaho with SGI SWAT staff in background. Photo: Greg M. Peters


Mesic, or wet, habitats provide critical “green groceries” for wildlife and livestock living in the sagebrush sea, particularly late in the summer or during periods of drought when other food resources have literally dried up. That’s why, since 2017, the Sage Grouse Initiative’s “Water is Life” campaign has been educating people about the outsized value these mesic areas have for wildlife and about how ranchers and natural resource professionals can conserve and restore these important habitats.

Through USDA-NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife, SGI teamed up with experts to expand the mesic habitat restoration toolbox to include ‘low-tech’ approaches that allow more people to get involved improving meadows and streams. Collaboration with Utah State University has resulted in a series of hands-on field workshops that have trained hundreds of conservation professionals and private landowners on these techniques, as well as provided new technical resources to support project design and implementation.

SGI/WLFW workshops like this help train conservation professionals and landowners on low-tech riparian restoration practices. Photo: Jeremy Maestas, SGI

A new Life on the Range story from the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission shows that these efforts are paying off. The story features two projects where a coalition of partners who have attended the SGI workshops are putting their new knowledge to work installing Beaver Dam Analogues, or BDAs, on working lands in sagebrush country. BDAs are part of a low-tech process-based restoration approach designed to mimic and promote beaver dam activity using simple, low-cost structures made of locally sourced, natural materials.

The first project featured in the story was on Hurry Up Creek that flows through Chris Black’s ranch near Bruneau, Idaho. Black notes, “I’ve wanted to get beaver in here for years but it is an ephemeral stream. There’s enough willows to make good food for them and everything, but there isn’t enough water for them to stay.”

So, he teamed up with conservation professionals from the Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and NRCS to install 10 BDAs on the creek, with more structures planned.

As the Life on the Range story explains, it didn’t take long for him to see the positive results:

They’re backing water up, they’re creating habitat for frogs, for sage grouse, for beavers. These meadows are like a sponge. They take that water and they hold it and release it slowly into the system. So, we don’t get that big rush in the spring, when the springs are active, they run hard and then just dry up. Then you just have a dry meadow. With water being held back in the system, it releases slowly, and that benefits downstream users, too, so it’s a benefit for everything. This is going to help my cows. What helps my cows will help all other species, too.

Josh Uriarte, a project manager with the Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation, and former SGI SWAT employee trained in these techniques, is bullish on the benefits these BDAs will have for sage grouse, “If we provide more of a green line for them, it’ll help during late brood season.”

On the other side of the state, partners have implemented several water conservation measures on Hawley Creek near Leadore, Idaho, including a new irrigation system and about 25 BDAs to improve season-long flows for fish. Prior to the conservation work, Hawley Creek had been an ephemeral stream that dried up for part of the year. Now, thanks to these holistic cross-ownership restoration projects, Hawley Creek runs year-round, and the BDAs are helping to expand the green groceries that wildlife and livestock need.

Daniel Bertram, a project manager with the Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation and 2016 SGI mesic habitat restoration workshop participant is excited about the impact this project will have:

I couldn’t be happier, to be honest. Hawley Creek hasn’t dried up, and it’s pretty neat to see where it’s come, and see the benefits for the private landowners, and also to the ecosystem. By slowing this water down, spreading it out, you can just see the response from the vegetation, the grass growing up, I can hear the grasshoppers in the background, passerines have just exploded, all of the wildlife species and insects have just exploded. And we’re already seeing brood-rearing sage grouse coming into this area and utilizing it in the short period we’ve been here. It’s been a huge success story for them, and I’m excited to see how the leks respond over time.

Bertram also captured this cool drone footage of the Hawley Creek BDAs. It’s amazing to see how quickly and effectively the structures are spreading water across the floodplain, which will help plants and wildlife later in the season when upland resources have dried out.


Drone footage courtesy of Daniel Bertram, Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation


One other successful aspect of these projects is the diversity of people who help install them. Volunteers with Trout Unlimited helped alongside conservation professionals from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Salmon Youth Employment Program, local youth from nearby schools and more, which goes a long way towards creating a sense community ownership and pride in restored areas.

Jeremy Maestas, NRCS’ sagebrush ecosystem specialist, has been leading SGI’s efforts on mesic habitat restoration across the West. He couldn’t be happier either, “It’s gratifying to see real on-the-ground results from our investments in training people on these new techniques. When we do things that benefit ag and wildlife, everyone wins.”

Read the full Life on the Range post from the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission. The post includes a fantastic video about BDAs and the two Idaho projects.


For more information about the value of mesic habitat in the arid West, about BDAs and other low-tech, process-based restoration techniques, and more, check out the following resources:

  • Read about how conserving wet habitats benefits wildlife like sage grouse here.
  • Read more about low-tech, process-based restoration techniques here.
  • Read a Science to Solutions Report on how low-tech restoration benefits rangelands here.
  • Access the Low-tech, Process-based Restoration of Riverscapes manual here.
  • Read a story from Trout Unlimited’s Magazine about how low-tech mesic restoration techniques are rewetting the West.
  • Check out the Sage Grouse Initiative’s mesic habitat storymap here.

 

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.