Thinking Like Water: Working Lands for Wildlife Leads Low-Tech Mesic Restoration Efforts in Sagebrush Country

August 26, 2021

Western WLFW Strategic Watershed Action Team staff gather in Idaho to learn about low-tech stream restoration techniques as part of WLFW’s 2019 workshop. Photo: Greg M. Peters


As the August sun shines brightly in the Utah sky, a dozen people dressed in fishing waders pound small, rounded logs into a stream. Adding sticks and mud to the logs, they create a beaver dam analog, or BDA, a low-tech restoration method for critical mesic areas.

Where it all began…Volunteers building BDAs in Utah on Birch Creek in 2016, including the U.S. Forest Service, Idaho Fish and Game, Utah State University, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Photo: SGI.

Since 2016, groups like this one – which was comprised of Working Lands for Wildlife (staff), conservation professionals and stream restoration expert stream restoration expert, Dr. Joe Wheaton from Utah State University – have invested in learning how beavers and beaver-mimicking, low-tech structures like BDAs can help heal degraded streams in the West. Doing so helps make these rangelands more resilient to drought and fire and more productive for wildlife and livestock.

In Colorado’s Gunnison Basin, ranchers, conservationists, NRCS staff, and other practitioners grabbed their gloves, shovels and rocks in June 2017 to install Zeedyk structures – simple rock “dams” that will help this wet meadow stay greener longer into the summer. Since that time, local groups have installed than 1,200 of these structures in this area, helping sage grouse, elk, deer, and livestock, all while making these landscapes more resilient to drought and wildfire.

Getting dirty is fun in Gunnison! Learning how to build rock structures in wet meadows means lots of mud and heavy lifting, but SGI workshop participants had plenty to smile about as they worked together to fix streams. Photo: Brianna Randall

Getting dirty in Gunnison! Learning how to build rock structures in wet meadows means lots of mud and heavy lifting, but SGI workshop participants had plenty to smile about as they worked together to fix streams. Photo: Brianna Randall

This foundational work in 2016 and 2017 helped jumpstart what has become one of WLFW’s primary efforts in sagebrush country: restoring the West’s degraded wet meadows and streams and creeks.

Next came the Sage Grouse Initiative’s (SGI) Water is Life Campaign, aimed at empowering

In 2017, SGI launched our Water is Life campaign, outlining our approach to restoring the precious emerald isles of the sagebrush sea. Click on image to find the campaign resources.

landowners and other groups across the West to begin implementing their own riparian restoration projects using the very same low-tech practices the WLFW team first explored in Utah and Colorado.

Today, riparian restoration has taken root across the West, thanks in large part to WLFW’s leadership and focus on training practitioners to do this work on their own. This work includes WLFW and a small group of partners and consultants – including Wheaton and Utah State University’s Restoration Consortium, Shawn Conner with BIO-Logic, Inc., the Intermountain West Joint Venture, the BLM, and others – who collectively spread the low-tech riparian restoration gospel to landowners, conservation professionals, land managers, and others.

 

In 2018, WFLW started hosting more low-tech restoration workshops across the West, spending time in the field discussing these techniques and then actually installing them on the ground. These efforts expanded through 2019 as WLFW hosted hundreds of participants from more than a dozen states.

Practitioners learn how to build beaver-dam analogs during an NRCS-led, low-tech restoration workshop in 2019. Photo: SGI.

The Low-Tech, Process-Based Restoration of Riverscapes Design Manual covers all aspects of low-tech mesic restoration. Click on image to access a free digital version of the manual.

Also in 2019, WLFW, Pheasants Forever, and Utah State University’s Restoration Consortium partnered to publish a 200-page Low-tech, Process-based Restoration of Riverscapes Design Manual. In keeping with WLFW’s focus on sharing these techniques with as many people as possible, the digital version of the manual is free to download, and the team also published a Pocket Manual covering the same information in an easy-to-bring-into-the-field format.

Even when COVID-19 shut down in-person field days in 2020, WLFW and Utah State University’s Restoration Consortium hosted a four-day virtual workshop focused on all aspects of low-tech, process-based riparian restoration. More than 1,000 people from across the U.S. and abroad participated in the workshop and all of the materials and information are still available for free, on-demand viewing.

 

WLFW continues to respond to requests for additional trainings. In August 2021, WLFW, the Intermountain West Joint Venture, and BIO-Logic teamed up with Wyoming NRCS, BLM, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to host a meadow restoration workshop for landowners and practitioners across the state, sharing the same techniques first explored in Gunnison, Colorado five years earlier with dozens of eager participants. The Wyoming workshop presentations and materials are all available for on-demand viewing.

All told, in just the last five years, nearly 2,000 people have participated in low-tech riparian restoration instruction led by WLFW and partners.

Guided by the recently launched Frameworks for Conservation Action, WLFW continues protect intact but vulnerable riparian areas and wet meadows. WLFW prioritizes protection and early intervention to maintain and enhance vulnerable wet habitats over intensive restoration of streams and meadows that are deeply incised and lack floodplain connectivity.

Conservation outcomes from this work are the greatest where community-based partnerships – like those that have characterized WLFW’s low-tech restoration work since the early efforts in Colorado and Utah – work together across boundaries to increase riparian and wet meadow area size and resilience. Doing so protects and restores the emerald islands in the sagebrush sea essential for overall rangeland resilience.

>>Learn more about how WLFW is addressing the threat of riparian and wet meadow degradation<<


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.