Birds, Beavers and Beef

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Sunrise over a North Central Montana creek.

PF on the Landscape in Montana

Story and photos by Hunter VanDonsel, Montana/Wyoming State Coordinator for PF

Water is life. During the summer of 2021 in Montana, water was on the front of everyone’s mind. Or maybe more accurately, it was the lack of water.

Summer 2021 saw much of the state still experiencing extreme drought. This drought has had lasting impacts for wildlife and livestock, especially in North Central Montana. Many livestock producers were forced to make tough decisions due to lack of water in creeks, reservoirs and pits. Water was as valuable as gold. Those lucky enough to have water had much more resiliency than those who did not.

With water vital to livestock and wildlife, anything that helps hold water becomes a viable option to improve an operation. That includes beavers.

Beavers traditionally are not a rancher’s friend. They build their dams in less-than-ideal locations, chew up trees, and generally create a nuisance. On Brian Fox’s ranch in North Central Montana, the recent lack of water was a tough challenge to work through. Which is why he looked toward beavers and the structures they build to add drought resiliency to his operation.

Volunteers admire an almost-completed beaver dam analog.
Brian was historically not a huge fan of beavers and their activities. About 5 years ago, due to damage on his precious few willows and cottonwoods along his riparian area, he trapped out the couple beavers that had taken up residence on his stretch of creek. Then he had second thoughts.

Just upstream of Brian’s place in the middle of a complex of 5 or more beaver dams, there is an abundance of water. Brian looked longingly upstream, wondering why those pesky beavers wouldn’t come down and dam up the water on his place.

When I mentioned to Brian a new concept of building fake beaver dams for drought resiliency, riparian restoration, and habitat for sage grouse and other upland gamebirds such as pheasants, I didn’t get the expected response of no. Instead, I got a resounding “Yes, sign me up!”

Through financial assistance available with the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program, Ducks Unlimited and a partnership with The Nature Conservancy, we laid the framework to restore 2 miles of riparian area on Brian’s operation with the use of beaver dam analogs.

Beavers are ecosystem engineers. They build dams that hold water longer into the year, trap sediment and raise the water table. They are nature’s drought resiliency planners for holding onto water and creating habitat vital to a suite of species.

Sage grouse are one of the primary examples of a species that benefit from beaver activity. The resulting wet area or mesic area that is created is crucial to brood survival during hot western summers. This green island created by stored water is an island of life in the dry prairie.

Pheasants are another bird that benefits from beavers. Beavers improve riparian vegetation and create a complex of brush and willows along creeks that provide vital winter cover, the most lacking component of pheasant habitat in Northern Montana.

Left: Brian Fox driving in a post to be utilized as part of a beaver dam analog. Right: Completed beaver dam analog.
Brian Fox and his father Ron were as eager as beavers to start construction on their beaver dam analogs. Partners from multiple agencies and volunteers with Pheasants Forever rallied to help them construct these dams. It took 15 volunteers a day to do the work of a 50-pound rodent! We pounded posts into the dry stream channel, weaved willows, added woody material and packed in sod to recreate the structures that beavers build all on their own. In total we created 11 dams on our first day of work. A respectable effort.

In coming years, we plan on building more structures to get to around 20 structures per mile of stream. Then we will wait, hoping that beavers move a mile downstream and utilize this habitat we have created for them. Upon completion we expect this project to create drought resiliency, water for livestock, improved water quality, better habitat for sage grouse, prime forage for big game, and better habitat for a suite of other wildlife species.

Beavers are the talk of the community in North Central Montana. Many of Brian’s neighbors have seen the benefits of the existing beaver dams, especially during a drought year like 2021. We plan to work with additional producers to help them improve their operation for livestock and their habitat for wildlife.
 

This story originally appeared in the 2022 Spring Issue of the Pheasants Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Pheasants Forever member today!