With their strong buck teeth and flat tails, beavers are the engineers of the natural world. Their craftsmanship, however, sometimes impacts man-made environments such as houses, roads, and farms. As a result, beavers are often considered to be nuisance animals and killed for the trouble they cause.
Now, beavers throughout central and eastern Washington State are being saved. In March 2011, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) established a three-year pilot project to relocate troublemaking beavers from homes and farms and move them to upper river tributaries. WDFW biologist William Meyer has been working on the Yakima Basin Beaver Project since its inception.
“I originally got the idea for this project from the Methow Valley Beaver Project,” said Meyer. “I thought, ‘I need to apply for a grant and do this project in the Yakima Basin.’” Meyer received funding for the project from the Salmon Recovery Funding Board.
Eastern Washington is a dry and arid place concerned with water storage and maintaining a healthy water cycle for crops, wildlife, and people. As climate change progresses, concerns about water quantity and quality continue to mount.
Through the relocation of 105 beavers over three years Meyer has seen firsthand how these fuzzy engineers help restore stream ecosystems.
“Beaver [dams] create stream complexity,” said Meyer, “Stream complexity leads to more food, more fish, and more wildlife habitat. When we set our monitoring cameras, we very frequently get pictures of deer, bobcat, elk, mice, birds, and a whole host of animals that now live around these beaver dams.”
Over the course of a year one beaver colony provides about $13,000 of ecosystem services. These services range from connecting flood plains to benefit plant growth, preventing floods by enabling water to slowly soak into the soil, and preventing pollutants from flowing downstream into drinking water. The most notable benefit is restoring salmon habitat.
“The success of Coho salmon is highly connected to healthy beaver populations,” said Meyer.
By the 1980s, certain Yakima Basin salmon runs had disappeared and others were nearly extinct. After 20 years of reintroduction efforts and habitat improvement projects, including beaver relocations, the area is seeing the salmon return. One result of the beaver ponds is that stream flows improve, which means better migration paths for the salmon. The ponds also provide safe spots for young salmon to rear, prior to migrating to the ocean.
Beaver populations around the world have survived habitat loss, fashion trends, and slaughter by agitated residents. Thanks to the Yakima Basin Beaver Project and other groups in Washington, nuisance beavers are becoming worker beavers, and their populations may be reviving once again.
“I think this is a win/win,” said Meyer, “These little ecosystem engineers can restore habitat, and [by moving them] we can solve someone’s problem.”