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Beavers: Nature’s first river restoration engineers

The project has restored over 44 acres of wetland habitat at a fraction of the cost of typical construction-based restoration techniques. Over time, the acres of restored habitat will continue to expand as the watershed processes created by beavers improve wetland, stream and riparian habitat both upstream and downstream of the relocation sites.

By Lauren Senkyr

Once numbering up to 400 million in North America, beavers were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century.  While it has long been known that their fur makes excellent clothing and top hats, the role of beavers in maintaining healthy river ecosystems was less well understood until recently.

The Methow Beaver Project is an excellent example of how beavers are now being used to enhance stream habitat to benefit endangered salmon and threatened steelhead trout in the Pacific Northwest.  Funded in part by the Ecotrust-led Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative, the project is restoring wetland and riparian habitat by relocating nuisance beavers to creeks within the Methow watershed in the Upper Columbia River Basin in Eastern Washington.

Sometimes the fact that beavers dam up water, cut down trees, and flood riverbanks is seen as a problem.  Not everyone wants busy beavers in their backyard!  But these same activities that beavers do so well are exactly what river restoration professionals have been trying to emulate for decades to improve habitat for Pacific salmon species, which co-evolved with beavers over millenia.  Adding wood to streams, creating backwatered areas, and reconnecting a stream with its floodplain are frequently the very same objectives of river restoration projects.  For this reason, beaver reintroduction is identified as a priority action in the multi-agency Upper Columbia Spring Chinook Salmon and Steelhead Recovery Plan. The Methow Beaver Project is relocating beavers from places where they are seen as a problem, and moving them to places where they can be part of the solution to salmon recovery.

So far fourteen new beaver colonies have been established and an additional three are being monitored to determine their long-term viability. This ten-year project aims to establish 50 new beaver colonies within the Methow Watershed.  Since it began in 2008, the project’s success rate for establishing beaver colonies has increased by over 30% compared to other similar efforts in the Western United States.

The project has restored over 44 acres of wetland habitat at a fraction of the cost of typical construction-based restoration techniques.  Over time, the acres of restored habitat will continue to expand as the watershed processes created by beavers improve wetland, stream and riparian habitat both upstream and downstream of the relocation sites.  Over the long-term, it is expected that this project will result in over 1,000 acres of habitat improvement.

The project is led by the Methow Conservancy, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. The NOAA Restoration Center and the U.S. Forest Service provide financial support through the Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative.  Other project partners include Washington Department of Energy, Yakama Nation, Priest Rapids Coordinating Committee, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and many dedicated volunteers, private landowners, and local residents.

Lauren Senkyr is a habitat restoration specialist with NOAA’s Restoration Center in Portland, Oregon.