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Are Beaver Structures Key to Fighting Drought?

Beaver dams have been used to lower stream temperatures and restore water levels in arid parts of the West. (ramendan/Flickr)
Beaver dams have been used to lower stream temperatures and restore water levels in arid parts of the West. (ramendan/Flickr)
September 5, 2017

HELENA, Mont. – For Montana and other parts of the West to fight drought and arid conditions, taking a cue from beavers might help.

Thought to be a nuisance by some landowners, researchers are finding that the dams beavers build on creeks and rivers actually help restore them.

Researchers describe the process as "soaking the sponge," as these structures increase water levels both above and below ground.

Nathan Korb, freshwater director at The Nature Conservancy of Montana, says so-called beaver mimicry structures have increased in popularity as a way to restore fish and plant habitat.

"We're creating artificial structures that raise that water level up and then planting willows and aspens and cottonwoods along the banks – now that the water is elevated, it can support those plants – with the hope that beaver populations will recolonize the area and maintain all those benefits and that greater capacity for natural water storage," he states.

The structures also help lower water temperatures and allow streams to flow longer without drying out.

Beavers were almost wiped out in the Northwest a century ago, but have made a comeback.

Korb says drought is one of the biggest threats to humans and natural systems in this area, and climate change is exacerbating it.

"Anything that we can do to address drought or make people and nature more resilient to drought is going to be a good strategy, and this is one of our best strategies for dealing with the climate change effects," he stresses.

Rebekah Levine, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Montana Western, also sees a lot of promise in mimicking beaver structures.

She says people are moving toward a future where every drop of water will be more valuable.

"In a world where we're going to be up against water resources limitations, we really need to be creative and try multiple different possible solutions,” she stresses. “And this is a really great idea, and we just need to keep testing it."

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT