Local Partners Mimic Beavers To Restore Streams In Wyoming

September 22, 2017

Mandi Hirsch (SGI, left) and Betsy Morgan (WGFD, right) discuss the construction of a beaver dam analogue. Photo: Wyoming Game and Fish

SGI field conservationist volunteers to help Wyoming Game and Fish build “beaver dam analogues” for a pilot project on private land

One year ago, the Sage Grouse Initiative convened a workshop in partnership with the USDA-NRCS West Technology Center and Utah State University to teach resource managers “cheap and cheerful” riparian restoration practices — such as using beaver dam analogues (BDAs) to raise water tables and enhance streamside vegetation.

One SGI field conservationist, Mandi Hirsch, recently joined a volunteer day and applied the experiences she gained at the workshop when biologists for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department offered local partners the opportunity to participate in the construction of eight BDAs on a degraded Wyoming stream.

BDAs are a cost-effective technique used to expand mesic habitat by mimicking natural beaver dams. These structures are hand-built with wooden posts woven with willow branches and brush, and are a simple way improve floodplain connectivity and help restore degraded riparian habitats. The goal of a BDA is to kickstart the system’s natural processes.

Working Lands for Wildlife's western coordinator, Tim Griffiths, discusses the benefits of beaver dams for ranchers and wildlife during the workshop.

Working Lands for Wildlife’s western coordinator, Tim Griffiths, discusses the benefits of beaver dams for ranchers and wildlife during SGI’s workshop.

For several years, Amy Anderson, a habitat biologist from Wyoming Game and Fish, has been working with private landowners to implement projects that support habitat restoration on a landscape scale. The landowners were concerned about habitat degradation, bank erosion, and de-watering in the drainage, and asked for help to keep more water on the land. Beaver dam analogues will help address the landowners concerns while improving habitat for Wyoming’s wildlife.

The BDA installation process required several days of work and was heavily dependent on volunteer assistance. Wooden posts were pounded into the streambed with a hydraulic post pounder, and willow branches were cut and soaked in preparation for the final construction phase. Building activities coincided with an adjacent project that removed encroaching conifer to improve aspen habitat for mule deer. With the addition of the still-green conifer branches to the bundles of pre-soaked willows, the group had plenty of building material!

The volunteer day provided Mandi and John Coffman of The Nature Conservancy, who had also attended the SGI workshop last fall, an opportunity to explain what they had learned from the BDA workshop.

After harvesting the materials and carefully planning and permitting the project, the volunteers were able to build eight BDAs in just five hours! Watch the timelapse below, courtesy of Wyoming Game and Fish:

Amy estimated that it cost about $1,500 for the building materials and equipment rentals. The landowners were thrilled with the project, and pleasantly surprised that it took less than one day to wrap up construction.

Wyoming Game and Fish decided to implement these BDAs as a pilot project to test the extent to which BDAs achieve restoration goals, and to also help inform future riparian restoration efforts across the state. A five-year monitoring plan at this site — which includes vegetation transects, stream surveys, and photos — will help show the effect of BDAs on the adjacent riparian habitat.

“We have been working with local and federal permitting agencies to ensure the BDAs are built in a sustainable and repeatable way. It’s important to start the process early and find out what permits are needed for work in your state,” said Amy.

Volunteers from WGFD, SGI, TNC, and the public pose near a finished BDA. Photo: Wyoming Game and Fish

The NRCS office in Lander has begun to receive interest in BDAs and mesic habitat enhancement projects from producers looking to add tools to their conservation toolbox. 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. As part of our Mesic Habitat Conservation Strategy, SGI offers a variety of alternatives for landowners interested in restoring the wet, green places that sustain both the bird and their herd.

Mandi expects to visit with private landowners this fall to determine if BDAs might fit their needs. Meanwhile, The Nature Conservancy is planning to install BDAs on a ranch they own near Lander. 

Many thanks to SGI partners, local agencies, and project funders who are investing in this simple yet effective technique! Sharing knowledge and leveraging partnerships is key for putting effective conservation projects on the ground that make a difference for landowners and wildlife across the West.

A completed BDA made from woven willows and conifer brush mattress. Photo: Wyoming Game and Fish

Learn more about restoring streams >

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.