Sunrise over a north central Montana creek.
By Hunter VanDonsel
Water, or the lack thereof, was on the front of everyone’s mind in the summer of 2021.
In Montana, nearly the entire state was in some level of drought, with much of the state experiencing extreme drought. Creeks that hadn’t been dry in recent memory were empty, pits that had been utilized for 50 years went dry and reservoirs that were reliable for decades held little or no water. This had lasting impacts on wildlife and livestock, and Montana ranchers were forced to embrace unorthodox solutions. Anything that helped hold water became a viable option — including beaver dams.
Beavers are not traditionally a rancher’s friend. They build dams in less-than-ideal locations, chew up trees and can be a nuisance in general. Brian Fox was historically not a fan of having beavers on his ranch in north central Montana, but as the drought worsened over the course of the summer, he began taking note of beavers and the structures they build that add drought resiliency an area. Fox had trapped the beavers that’d taken up residency on his property around five years ago, but began regretting that decision after he noticed an area of just north of his property that was home to a large beaver population. As the drought progressed, he realized there was still an abundance of water in the area where beavers were present.
Volunteers taking a break during beaver dam analog construction.
Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever approached Fox about the concept of building fake beaver dams on his property, and Fox was more than happy to oblige. Through financial assistance from the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program, Ducks Unlimited and partnership with The Nature Conservancy, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever laid the framework to restore two miles of riparian area on Brian’s operation with the use of man-made beaver dams known as beaver dam analogs.
Beavers are nature’s drought resiliency planners, holding onto water and creating habitat vital to a suite of species. Sage grouse are one of the primary examples. The water-laden habitat created by beaver dams are crucial to brood survival during hot western summers. Pheasants also benefit from these areas, and beavers also improve riparian vegetation and create a complex network of brush and willows along creeks that provide vital winter cover. All of this is beneficial to upland species, while simultaneously helping Fox retain the water that’s so valuable to his livelihood.
A beaver dam analog constructed with help from Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever on Brian Fox’s Montana ranch.
Fox and his father Ron were eager to start construction on their beaver dam analogs. In October 2021, partners from multiple agencies and Pheasants Forever volunteers rallied to help them construct the dams. It took 15 volunteers one day to do the work of a 50-pound rodent. Volunteers pounded posts into the dry stream channel, weaved willows, added woody material and packed in sod to recreate the structure. In total they created 11 dams on their first day of work. The end goal of the projects is to build around 20 structures per mile of stream. Then, with any luck, beavers will move downstream and utilize the habitat that’s been created for them. Ideally this project will create drought resiliency, water for livestock, improved water quality, improved habitat for sage grouse, improved forage for big game and better habitat for a number of other wildlife species.
Beavers are the talk of the community in north central Montana. Many of Fox’s neighbors have seen the benefits of existing beaver dams, especially during a drought year like 2021. Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever have plans to work with additional producers to help them improve their operation for livestock and their habitat for wildlife across multiple states in the American West. In this region, beavers, birds and beef go hand in hand.
Hunter VanDonsel is the Montana and Wyoming state coordinator for Pheasants Forever.