This West Is OUR West

Let beavers work to prevent fires

Guest column


Nov 2, 2017

Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service, called beavers “water factories.” Tens of millions of beavers created vast wetlands in North America, nourishing Native Americans, fish, wildlife, forests and meadows with life-giving water. Then came the European fur trappers, and in less than 50 years, Montana had no more beavers at all. Eastern Montana dried up as a result. Finally, beavers were reintroduced to recharge aquifers gone dry and save water from draining away.

Today, Montana allows unlimited trapping of beavers nine months every year in four districts and more than five months in three districts. When one adult beaver is killed, the family starves to death.

Starting July 7 with the Crow Rock fire near Miles City, Montana turned into an inferno. The Lodgepole Complex fire burned 400 square miles. Montana became the epicenter of drought — the hottest and driest summer on record  —and got smothered in smoke. By Sept. 11, more than 1 million acres had burned. Animals burned alive and died from smoke inhalation; a coyote was seen with a leg burned off. Seeley Lake was plunged into toxic darkness for six weeks. Montana’s tourism industry shut down in much of the state. Hundreds were evacuated and homes burned. Two firefighters died.

We now face the cost of fighting these fires. Farmers lost $400 million in crops, ranchers were hit hard and the state budget is spiraling downward. It doesn’t have to be this bad. We could make a small change that would help contain fires. We could eliminate recreational trapping of beavers.

Beavers create ecosystems. They build dams that hold ponds and restore streams, wetlands and floodplains. They turn hardpan into rich soil. They supply water for municipalities, irrigation and wildlife. Seasonal streams flow year-round and groundwater is stored, thanks to beavers. Beaver wetlands act as firewalls, mitigating forest fires. Firefighters use water from the ponds. When beavers gnaw down cottonwood trees, they spur more growth — cottonwoods thrive on disturbance.

As warming temperatures threaten cold-water fish like trout and coho salmon, the cold water at the bottom of beaver ponds makes a perfect habitat for juvenile fish. Beaver ponds nurture grasses, trees and shrubs, creating nesting sites and food for songbirds, forage for game animals and most species. Beaver ponds improve water quality too, by reducing sediments and pollutants.

We must eliminate recreational trapping of beavers. At great expense, the Forest Service reintroduced beavers in the Beaverhead National Forest to recolonize streams, reverse erosion and provide water and habitat. But recreational traps soon killed most of the beavers. Reintroduction is futile as long as trapping continues.

In the wrong place, beaver dams can cause flooding on roads and fields, but trapping and dynamiting beaver dams are short-term solutions. There’s a far better, low-maintenance, cost-effective method: the beaver deceiver.

Beavers are attuned to the sound of water. When it reaches a certain pitch, beavers stop building their dams. Skip Lisle of Vermont invented beaver deceivers, or flow devices — special pipes and a culvert fence (if a dam is at a culvert) — that let water continue through the dam, but sound to the beaver like the dam is finished.

The Virginia Department of Transportation found that for every $1 spent on flow-device installation compared to trapping, dynamiting, road repair and preventative maintenance, $8 was saved, for a return on investment of nearly 8 to 1.

In a time of accelerating climate change, drought and fire, we need beavers more than ever. They work for free and restore our precious water. What are we waiting for? End recreational beaver trapping now. Let our beavers go to work.

Connie Poten of Missoula is the secretary of Footloose Montana.