By Kali Becher, Land Steward
On a cold October morning I’m hauling piles of willow limbs while others chip away at the ice covering Reeder Creek where it runs through our Bismark Meadows property. Located near Priest Lake in Idaho’s northwestern corner, this is one of the larger wetland and meadow complexes in the area. It provides important low-elevation, seasonal habitat for grizzly bears, particularly sows with newborn cubs who seek the spring’s first green plant growth here.
As a valley peatland—a very rare habitat type in Idaho—Bismark Meadows has high biodiversity, hosting 13 rare plant species. The area was significantly altered in the early 1900s when portions of the wetlands were ditched and drained to be used for agriculture. As a result, a key resident of the meadow was kicked out: the beaver.
Now, only remnant portions of the wetlands remain, with many areas dominated by invasive reed canary grass. With much of the wetland habitat gone, beavers have not come back. Our current stewardship work at Bismark Meadows is focused on changing these two trends and restoring areas of native wetland.
While there are a variety of ways to do this, some very expensive, there is also one strategy that is quite simple at its core: bring back beavers. Why? Beavers are ecosystem engineers. They dramatically alter their habitat by taking down trees and shrubs and building dams. These actions provide an impressively long list of benefits: filtering pollution, storing groundwater, preventing floods, storing carbon, and creating wetlands.
At Bismark Meadows, having beavers back would help return portions of the meadow to wetland and combat the invasive reed canary grass. Research has shown that beaver dams raise the water table and increase the amount of time the area is covered by water, which can decrease the presence of reed canary grass. This change in hydrology would create conditions more suitable for native wetland species and help them out-compete the invasive grass.
Paving the Way for Beavers’ Return
Unfortunately, it is not as simple as dropping a few beavers at the property. There is currently little suitable habitat for them, so they would likely leave to seek out better habitat. Therefore, the first step is to create more suitable habitat for them, and then let them do the rest.
We set to work that October day to install beaver dam analogs (BDAs)—essentially a fake beaver dam—in the creek running through the meadow. Along with staff from our project partners at Idaho Natural Resource Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, and Cramer Fish Sciences, we installed two BDAs, trying our best to replicate the complex structures beavers construct in streams. We used a combination of posts set in the stream, willow branches, sediment from the stream and pine boughs. Halfway through the day we could already see the structures working as water pooled behind them.
If the project goes as planned, the BDAs will provide many of the benefits of a real beaver dam, creating conditions needed for native wetland vegetation to establish and decreasing the prevalence of reed canary grass. We will need to help along the way by planting willows and maintaining the BDAs, until beavers can move back to their old home and get to work. When they do, they will help return some of the meadow to its old wetland conditions, improving habitat for numerous wildlife species—with little to no assistance from us.