Preston Rancher Jay Wilde had a dream – to restore beavers to Birch Creek.
His goal was to make Birch Creek a perennial stream. And provide water – for his cattle and horses.
But each time he released beavers – on his own nickel – they vanished.
“They didn’t stay. They didn’t survive or the predators got them, we don’t know,” Wilde says. “It got pretty obvious to me that I didn’t know what I was doing. As far as restoring beaver.”
Then, Jay met Joe Wheaton from Utah State University. A professor of Watershed Sciences, Wheaton specializes in using beavers and low-tech woody structures to restore streams.
“They have a model called BRAT, beaver restoration assessment tool, and that identified good beaver habitat. How many dams would be supported by the habitat that’s here,” Wilde says. “I thought, finally, I’ve knocked on the right door.”
Wheaton came up to visit Jay right away to do a BRAT analysis of Birch Creek with colleague, Nick Bouwes, a professor of watershed sciences at Utah State.
“The core of it, is a capacity model,” Wheaton says. “It looks at the vegetation that’s present, and asks the question about its suitability as a dam-building material, and hydrology. Simple way to put it, beavers need water and wood.”
The BRAT analysis predicted that beavers might build 25-60 dams per mile.
“Largely that’s because there’s a ton of aspen, cottonwood, other species present that they like to use for building dams,” Wheaton says.
Turns out the beavers loved Birch Creek canyon! Following the release of 9 beavers in the first two years of the project, there are over 175 beaver dams in Birch Creek five years later.
This is a story where dreams can come true. Jay Wilde showed a great deal of grit and tenacity in bringing beavers back to Birch Creek. A big silver lining is that his grand-daughter, Emily, participated in the whole project from the beginning, dating back to her high school years.
“We used to come up here every summer when I was a kid,” Emily Wilde says. “First thing, me and my sister would come up and play in the creek for hours on end, find all the bugs, and all the plants that we could. When I was 14, I understood that this is what I wanted to do, spend my life playing in the creek.”
So what could be better than restoring a creek with beaver?
“I thought it was an interesting opportunity to learn something new, expand my knowledge and find out what I wanted to do when I grew up,” she says.
Emily is a junior at Utah State University now, majoring in natural resources.
“I thought it was really cool to restore the landscape. Not fix it, but bring it back to what it was,” she says.
Yes, but how did they do it? How could they ensure that the beavers would stay?
Let’s take a moment to learn more about the science-based strategy, and why the beavers are doing so well in the Birch Creek watershed.
Utah State Professor Joe Wheaton visits the Diamond W Ranch
The BRAT analysis seemed promising. Jay also remembered that there were beaver dams in Birch Creek when he was a kid.
Jay invited key Forest Service people to meet with Wheaton to understand the potential. Wheaton suggested that they build several beaver dam analogs in Birch Creek to test out the concept. Nick Bouwes agreed.
But first they would need approval from the Forest Service – as the BDAs would be located on Caribou-Targhee National Forest land – and stream-alteration permits from the Idaho Department of Water Resources and Army Corps of Engineers.
Brett Roper, National Aquatic Monitoring Program Leader for the Forest Service, and a watershed scientist who teaches at Utah State, helped with the Forest Service environmental approval process.
“Brett got involved, and he said he’d put his neck on the line, and got them to sign off on a categorical exemption through NEPA,” Wheaton says.
And Brad Higginson, a Caribou-Targhee hydrologist, helped push the IDWR and Corps permits through in record time.
They built four BDA’s that fall, using a $3,000 grant from the Forest Service for building materials. Jay and Emily pitched in, along with Casey Wilde, Emily’s Dad and Jay’s son, and Nick Bouwes.
In 2016, they built 15 more BDA’s on Birch Creek, while Jeremy Maestas from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) held a stream-restoration educational workshop on site. The workshop, sponsored by USDA-NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife, brought together about 40 agency biologists and engineers from around the West to learn about low-tech restoration, Maestas said.
The BDAs created inviting habitat for the beavers, Wheaton says. “They were built as a comfortable release site for the beavers, so they weren’t freaked out. And we expected them to behave like teen-agers so we wanted to have choices for them upstream and downstream. Maybe they’ll use one of those, and indeed, they did.”
The deep-water habitat created a safe place for the beavers to hide from predators and set up shop. They released six beaver that fall.
“Beavers are hard-wired in the cold mountain country to prepare for the winter,” he says. “Give them enough time to make a go of it, but move in a full family in the fall, they’ll look around and say, OK this’ll work, let’s make a go of it.”
Raleigh Scott, a conservation officer for Idaho Fish and Game, live-trapped a family of nuisance beavers from nearby and assisted with the release in Birch Creek. The beavers went right to work, creating a large beaver pond above Jay’s ranch.
Emily Wilde explains. “So this is our biggest dam right now. It has a lodge, primary dam, built in 2017, they have 10 more secondary dams below here. This big one holds an amazing amount of water, and the fish have gotten really big and healthy because of this dam.”
The following year, the beavers built more dams, had more off-spring, and the beaver dams continued to multiply in Birch Creek.
“It’s been so fun to watch all the changes. So many positive things have happened – things I never dreamed of,” Jay Wilde says.
Forest Service officials are excited about the positive changes, too.
“So these beaver dams, they do a lot for streamflow, and they do great deal for fish habitat,” says Brad Higginson, a hydrologist for the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. “As you can see, Birch Creek before was maybe 2 feet wide and a couple of inches deep. Now you can see how deep it is, and the amount of fish that would be these ponds.”
“Another thing these beaver dams do, is they elevate the water table,” Higginson continues. “So you see a lot of storage in the channel. What you don’t see is the storage that’s underneath the land. Now, you have all of that storage that occurs during spring runoff, where there’s excess water available, and in the later summer and early fall, that water continues to feed the stream, which helps the stream flow all year long.”
So far, Birch Creek is flowing for 40-plus days longer than it did pre-beaver.
Wet meadow habitat around the beaver dams diversifies the habitat for insects and birds around the stream.
Fish life has rebounded in a big way, too.
“They’re Bonneville cutthroat trout, a really pure strain,” Emily Wilde says. “So it was really important to make sure they’re doing well. I did a fish count with the Forest Service, and we caught 132 fish in this pond.”
“You get pretty excited to see something this big, it’s just shallow scrappy habitat, they’re just scraping by. And we’ve gone from a fish density of 5 fish 100 meters to somewhere around 70,” Wheaton says.
Adds Lee Mabey, a fisheries biologist for the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, “It’s like a 10- to 20-fold increase in fish out there. Fish need water but they also need habitat. The beaver ponds, they provide a lot of habitat complexity that the stream alone itself doesn’t provide — over-wintering areas, holding areas, deep-water areas, they increase the productivity of insects which means more food for the fish, all the little edge-water habitat, little beaver channels, provide a lot of nursery-type habitat for young fish.”
Jay Wilde’s excellent land stewardship and grazing management also made the beaver project a success, officials said.
“I can’t underscore enough how important it was that good grazing management was a pre-curser to this story,” Wheaton says. “There’s a lot of places where we go to work, and you look at the riparian, and you’ve got to fix the grazing management first. Here, that had been done, and done so well, it makes it really easy to look good.”
Jay follows the Allan Savory system of grazing management, using intensive cattle grazing on small pastures for a short period of time, and then moving on to the next pasture. He shows us an example.
“I grazed this earlier this spring, and we grazed it down really close,” he says. “And this is the recovery we’ve got.”
The vibrant grass growth on Jay’s private land stands in contrast to a different property owner to the north, and Forest Service land to the east.
“We’ve been able to make it look like this without doing any seeding, chemical treatments, it’s all been done by the way we manage the range.”
Jay uses temporary solar fence to create small pastures, and he rotates the cattle to new pastures frequently throughout the grazing season.
“I don’t like to stay on longer than a week. As soon as it’s grazed off, the grass is trying to grow. And you need to leave it alone to let that happen,” Wilde says. “It’s not only intensive grazing, it’s intensive labor and management. We’ve had the (solar) fences to put in, the water system, pipe that water to strategic spots.”
Jay tapped a spring and dug an underground water line to a stock tank that serves four pastures on his private land.
By paying close attention to grazing management, Jay not only has nurtured healthy rangelands and created wildlife habitat, he also is putting more pounds on his cows, an important factor at harvest time.
“One of the selling points of that is, if you do this intensive grazing, you can double your stocking rate,” Wilde says. “Yeah, you got more cows out here with calves, you’re putting on more beef, more revenue.”
Jay closely monitors the range. A series of photo-monitoring pictures shows how Birch Creek has recovered from 2001-2010.
At last count, there are more than 165 beaver dams in the Birch Creek watershed.
“It’s been a dream come true for me,” Wilde says.
Jay and Joe Wheaton have held numerous show-me educational tours in the area.
Beavers aren’t perfect; they need to be managed, Wilde points out, but they have a role to play as a keystone species.
“I grew up here hating beaver, always getting in irrigation ditches, one thing or the other, creating problems. That was the mentality back then,” Wilde says.
“We have to think of beavers as our friend instead of our foe,” he continues. “It’s what you have to call a paradigm shift. There’s a lot of people who changed their mind. They decided for these watersheds to be healthy, you need beaver.”
Now Wheaton takes Jay on the road for educational workshops about restoring streams. There’s a big need for more stream-restoration projects, and it’s a powerful thing for landowners to lead the way.
“I would love to replicate Jay’s story thousands of times over,” Wheaton says. “Jay has turned into a dear friend. He and I have done workshops in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho. Jay, telling the story, to his neighbors, to other ranchers, this is what it means to him and his operation, it’s been huge, it’s inspired a lot of people.”
“I think there’s a chance that this will start growing really quickly,” adds Emily Wilde. “It’s incredible easy to implement. It can be pretty widespread if you want it to be.”
Steve Stuebner is the writer and producer of Life on the Range, an educational project sponsored by the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission.