Eager Beavers Engineer Ecosystems
Air Date: Week of October 7, 2011
Parish and another member of the Solution on a trap-and-relocate. (The Lands Council)
Farms faced with drought and shrinking water tables may soon have a natural solution: The Beaver Solution. A new group of trappers run by Spokane, Washington’s Lands Council, promotes beaver benefits and when that doesn’t work, perform beaver relocations. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with program director Amanda Parish.
GELLERMAN: For the past few weeks, Living on Earth has been reporting on the efforts to remove dams around the country. Well, this week, we talk about building them. On a tributary of the Spokane River in Washington state, new dams have gone up - helping to raise the water table, remove pollution and pesticides, attract fish and wildlife, and they cost: nothing.
Because we’re not building the dams, beavers are! Amanda Parrish has been busy with the new dams - busy as a, well, you know! She’s director of the Beaver Solution - a program run by Spokane's Lands Council to protect beavers, and promote their engineering talents. We caught up with Amanda Parrish while she was knee deep at work.
[BOOTS SLOSHING THROUGH WATER]
PARRISH: So, I'm walking around here by a dam on California Creek. Luckily, I’ve got these waterproof boots.
GELLERMAN: What’s the beaver dam look like - the one that you’re in front of?
PARRISH: It’s sort of a U-shaped dam, going from bank to bank. It’s about four feet tall, maybe four and a half by, about 30 feet wide. This went up in a matter of weeks, not just one week. We were here about a month and a half ago, and didn’t see any sign of beaver dams, and upon returning last week, there’s this new dam!
GELLERMAN: So, how does the Beaver Solution work?
PARRISH: Well, there’s two main components of the program. One is wetland restoration and using beavers as an agent of that restoration, and the other is resolving the human and beaver conflict. Generally, a private property owner contacts us regarding a nuisance beaver on their property.
So we can go out and assess the problem and offer beaver management strategies. For instance, if losing trees is the problem, we offer tree protection. If flooding land is the problem, we can install pond-leveling devices to lower the level of that pond. But in some instances, none of these solutions or strategies really appeal to the landowner, in which case, we can offer to relocate the family of beaver.
I’ve spoken to a farmer here in Washington who is interested in getting beaver on his property. He used to live in Wyoming, and he had a series of beaver dams on his property - he would notch them maybe twice a year, it would flood his grazing pastures, and the beaver would patch up that dam in the next day. So he said it was just the greatest irrigation system he’s ever had.
GELLERMAN: So how do you trap a beaver?
PARRISH: I didn’t go to school to learn how to be an animal trapper, but it’s easier than I thought it would be, originally. We use what are known as suitcase traps, and they look like a Samsonite suitcase.
And we use four traps, you know - set all four traps each night. The traps are baited with food from the trapping site, but what really attracts them is the beaver lure, which is the scents used for marking territory.
And then we check the traps every morning around 8 or 9 am, pick up the beaver that we have from that day, take them to a temporary holding facility. And then go back out that afternoon, and repeat that process. Every year, we have more people interested in using beaver. Whether it’s because they like bird watching and they know that beaver ponds are good for that, or because they want habitat improvement or water storage.
GELLERMAN: So what are the other benefits from beaver dams?
PARRISH: The dam creates a wetland, and wetlands, as a lot of us know, offer a lot of environmental benefits. If there is a heavy sediment load in the creek from erosion, a beaver dam backs up a lot of that sediment. If there are any pollutants in the stream, like excess phosphorus or nitrogen or heavy metals, those bind to sediments, and that's then stored behind the beaver dam. So again, the water flowing out is not only clearer because of less sediment, but it’s got less pollutants in it.
GELLERMAN: The beaver as an irrigation engineer.
PARRISH: Yeah, exactly. You know, and one of the things that they’re often called is ecosystem engineers, which is really true. If you’ve been around beaver dams, you can see how, other than human beings, they’re truly one of the only animals that impacts the ecosystem so greatly.
GELLERMAN: Why do beavers build dams in the first place? What’s in it for the beaver?
PARRISH: There are two main reasons that beaver build dams. One is: they want to control and regulate the level of water so that the entrance to their home - their lodge - is always underwater. So that keeps them safe from predators - having this underwater entrance.
The second reason that they build dams is because they don’t hibernate and they need to store food over the winter. So they have a food cache in their pond, so they need water that’s deep enough where it won’t freeze over.
I was also going to say that the sound of running water is what triggers beaver to want to build dams, and actually, there was research done at one point where there was just a boombox playing the sound of a babbling creek, and eventually the beavers started trying to dam the boombox.
GELLERMAN: Oh really? They’re kind of hardwired to… [Laughing.]
PARRISH: Yeah, they’re hardwired to stop that sound of running water.
GELLERMAN: Well Amanda Parrish, thank you so much!
PARRISH: You’re welcome.
GELLERMAN: Amanda Parrish is the director of the Beaver Solution. It’s a program run by Spokane’s Lands Council, it’s a non-profit conservation group.
The Lands Council is changing peoples’ minds about an animal that many considered a large pest.
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