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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

How Beavers Help Save Water

Air Date: Week of March 20, 2015

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The Beaver Believers live-trapped a beaver family including this kit in Aurora, CO, and relocated them into the forest on a private ranch. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Koenigsberg)

In the drought-ridden West, some people are partnering with beavers to restore watersheds, where, before trappers arrived, the large rodents once numbered in the millions. Film-maker Sarah Koenigsberg captures various efforts to reintroduce beavers to their former habitat in her documentary The Beaver Believers and tells host Steve Curwood why beavers are essential for a healthy ecosystem.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Well, if we were to leave it to beavers – some of the effects could be downright breathtaking. Out in the American West, beavers once numbered in the millions, before European fur trappers arrived. But by the end of the 19th century the beaver and their dams were all but gone, allowing the west to be won by farmers and ranchers. Now in places the beaver are being restored to their rightful habitat, and helping to restore watersheds in the drought-ridden West. Sarah Koenigsberg, a Washington-based filmmaker, has documented the efforts and successes of half a dozen “Beaver Believers”, who are working hard to bring the big tailed and bucktoothed rodents back. She took time from editing her video to talk about them.

KOENIGSBERG: Well, in our film "The Beaver Believers" we feature the stories of a biologist, a hydrologist, a botanist, and activist, a psychologist and a hairdresser. So these are all very different people who share the common passion of restoring beaver to the west. Some work within the federal agencies, the forest service, others are just average citizens who stumbled upon to the cause accidentally and have found a fulfilling life doing something that they believe in.


The Beaver Believers logo (Photo courtesy of Sarah Koenigsberg)

CURWOOD: You have a person who says she's a hairdresser and she says oh she's not any kind outdoorsy in person but yet she's out there live trapping and relocating beaver and saying that this is the most exciting and satisfying thing she's ever done.

KOENIGSBERG: Yup, that's Sherry Tippee. She is a hairdresser in Colorado, and it's true, her nails are done, her hair's done, she's got perfect makeup on when she comes to do her interview or give a speech but when it's beaver trapping time, she is waist deep in murky muddy messy water, she's slogging around and she's just picking the beavers up and cuddling them and loving on them and sharing the good work that they do.

She stumbled upon beaver totally by accident. She started out just as an animal lover. She heard of some beavers that were going to be killed simply because they were in an urban environment and she thought that was wrong, so she decided to do something about it. She's now the leading live trapper in all of Colorado. I think what she shows us is we don't need to have these rigid boundaries of outdoorsy person or environmentalist. We can all find a cause and get active on it.

CURWOOD: Why did you decide to make this film?

The Beaver Believers Kickstarter Trailer from Tensegrity Productions on Vimeo.

KOENIGSBERG: Well, in my own work I've been looking for new climate change narratives, ways that we can relate to it and actually feel like we are accomplishing something. Most of the climate change narratives that we hear about are very apocalyptic. You have these huge doom and gloom stories, and it seems like there's very little we can do as individuals. So what struck me with all of these beaver believers is that they are working on the problem of water, which is one of the biggest problems of climate change, but is very tangible. They're working at the level of their own watershed. And while they do work very hard, they're finding great joy and satisfaction in this work. So they're almost seeing climate change as an opportunity to act, to get involved, to fix problems we've actually had in our watersheds for several decades now. That just struck me is exactly the kind of inspiring climate change story that we really need to be telling.

CURWOOD: Now, there's a finite supply of water in the drought-ridden American west. Beaver can't increase that water supply. What can Beaver do to help the water situation?


A wildlife biologist assesses a dam on Paneum Creek, WA, for reestablished beavers. He measured the height, width, and amount of water storage that the beavers create. (Photo: Basin Project, Mid-Columbia Fisheries)

KOENIGSBERG: Yeah, you're correct. Beavers certainly don't make more water, but what they do is they redistribute the water that does fall down onto the landscape, so if you picture spring floods - all that water that comes rushing down in March or April just goes straight through the channels and out to the ocean - what beavers do is they almost act like another snowpack reserve, whether it's rain or snow runoff, all of that water can slow way down behind a beaver pond and then it slowly starts to sink into the ground. It stretches outward making a big recharge of the aquifer and then that water ever so slowly seeps back into the stream throughout the rest of the spring and summer as it's needed so that we end up with water in our stream systems in July and August when there is no longer rainfall in much of the west and when it's incredibly hot and our streams are beginning to run dry.

CURWOOD: I want a bit of a backstory here. When settlers arrived in North America a few hundred years ago there were well, zillions of beaver. What happened?


Beaver footprint in new mud. (Photo: courtesy of Sarah Koenigsberg)

KOENIGSBERG: Well, basically, well as the West was being developed there was a race to establish territory and beaver pelts were the currency at the time. So people began to realize if they turned it into a fur desert, if they eradicated every single beaver they would be removing the value in that land so people can come in and claim their stake. Unknowingly they begin to cause great ecological harm. There actually are records in some trapper's journals towards the end of that trapping heyday where they began to realize the mistake that they'd made as they did start to watch stream ecosystems start to crumble.

CURWOOD: So people were trying to eradicate the beaver, didn't quite happen, although I gather in the 1950s the Army Corps of Engineers was supposed to in fact completely finish off the beaver.

KOENIGSBERG: There was another campaign as we came in with our slightly off-kilter logic that the best thing to do would be to get the water from the mountains downstream to reservoirs as quickly as possible. So there was an effort by the Army Corps to straighten a lot of stream channels. That's the exact opposite of what beavers do. They're all about complexity and meanders and letting the water make its way down ever so slowly. So there was another campaign to try to get rid of the beavers, which were only seen as a nuisance to get the water down in the irrigation systems as quickly as possible.


Filming Beaver Believers’ US Forest Service Biologist, Kent Woodruff outside of Twisp, WA. Woodruff’s team relocates beaver to areas where they will help restore waterways and the local flora and fauna. (Photo: courtesy of Sarah Koenigsberg)

CURWOOD: So the landscape has really changed. How do they fit into today's landscape?

KOENIGSBERG: The landscape has changed. We have a lot of incised streams, that means that the bottom has cut down so the stream looks like it's caught in a canyon, and all those areas that means the water table has dropped that low. So when you have these areas with deep incised streams there's no water in that soil until you get all the way down as deep as the bottom of the streambed. So there's not any water for most of the vegetation on top. What beavers can do is even if they start building a dam way down at the bottom, slowly that dam will trap sediment and ever so slowly the bottom of the stream channel will rise back up and then the beavers have to build their dam higher and then it catches more sediment and rises up again. So there's areas where we’ve seen stream channels rise up two, three meters in just a couple of years.

CURWOOD: Beaver evolved side-by-side with other animals and plant life, that ecosystem there. How did this ability of a beaver to slow down the runoff of water affect other species? Salmon for example?


Large beaver lodge in Oregon’s Methow watershed, where beavers were reintroduced three years ago. A low dam across the stream and wetland trapped water in he area, creating a pond. (Photo: NOAA)

KOENIGSBERG: Ah, it's greatly beneficial. As you said, all of those species coevolved and so without the beavers the stream systems have become much more simple and simplicity is not what we want. We want complexity. We want a very rich, biodiverse habitat and suite of species. So with the beavers coming back instead of just a chute of water going straight down the stream, now we have pools and along the edges of the pools there's some really shallow slow-moving areas for amphibians, little froggies and insects, rushing cooler areas as the water comes spilling through the dam. There's a plunge pool at the base of the dam where the water has some force and it's scoured out a little bit of area at the bottom, so you have areas of rapid current, slow current, you have a great variation in temperatures from warm to cool, and it basically creates a much more varied habitat for many, many more animals to live on. There's a phrase "Beavers taught salmon how to jump", and it's quite true. It's amazing you'll see salmon jumping over dams. You'll see littler ones wiggling their way through it, somehow swimming right up through the middle in between the sticks. The dams can provide areas for juvenile fish to rest, they could be off to the side where there's less current, but they could be right at the edge of an area that does have insects so as insects or food sweep by, the fish can more easily stick out their little mouths and grab them. They have areas to hide from predators. Also then there's a lot more vegetation that can grow on the sides, so there's areas the fish can rest in the shade, not warm-up and overheat.

CURWOOD: Sarah, what does it mean to "think like a beaver"?


Two streams near Elko, NV: Trout Creek on the left and Cottonwood Ranch on the right, where beaver live. The ranch owner planned to kill the beavers because, “that’s what you do,” until he noticed that they diverted water into the region. (Photo: courtesy of Sarah Koenigsberg)

KOENIGSBERG: Yes one of the themes in my piece that I really love is called "Thinking like a beaver" and what means to us is learning to discover a way that we can live where we're actually doing good. In beavers keystone role in an ecosystem they're really being quite selfish when they build dams to make ponds. It's for their protection and so they have deep enough water they can hide from predators, they can have an underwater entrance to their lodge, but they are doing something that is very helpful and very good, and I think today we hear so many stories of humans just causing harm and being detrimental in everything we do to nature and the other creatures around us. So I really like this idea of learning to live in a way whereby taking care of ourselves we also take care of the nature around us. I love that we can still stumble upon other species that can surprise us and that we can learn from.


Filmmaker Sarah Koenigsberg is producing “The Beaver Believers.” Sarah holds one of the kits that her crew helped live trap in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo: courtesy of Sarah Koenigsberg)

Beavers are very social. They're monogamous. They're fabulous parents. You can see them teaching their children. They will have little babies on their backs. I've stumbled upon a few areas where you can see some really poor dam building off to the side of the real dam where perhaps the first-year kids were practicing, trying to imitate mom and dad. They're really lovely little critters. They have little personalities and they're very friendly. They're not aggressive or mean. They're a little bit shy. You can tell they'll slap their tail on the water if they get scared, but it's really fun to sneak out to a pond in the evening right before the sun sets and you'll see them come out of the lodge and start to swim around the pond and cut down little branches then POOF they slap down on the water and I almost drop my camera and they dive under, and hide out for a while.

CURWOOD: Sarah Koenigsberg and her team are producing the "Beaver Believers", it's a documentary about the work of six people to reestablish beaver in the American west, and we expect this film to be out sometime in 2015. Sarah, thanks so much.

KOENIGSBERG: Thank you.

 

Links

“The Beaver Believers” website includes a trailer for the documentary.

Beaver Believer, Kent Woodruff is a wildlife biologist in Washington.

“Leave It to Beavers: Can they help us adapt to climate change?”

PBS’s Nature documents the lives of beavers and how they restore water to dry areas.

Beavers save a salmon population in California

Video of the Methow Beaver Project, a effort to improve water storage in some of Washington’s creeks in the face of diminishing snowpack.

“Ruining” the Rivers in the Snake Country: The Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fur Desert Policy

 

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