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Putting beavers to work with the aim for more weight gain

Abundant clean water means more pounds of beef, and an Alberta project demonstrates how beavers can help provide it

Ask many farmers or ranchers if they like having beavers on their land and you may have to wait a moment as they finish choking on their coffee. You may then be on the receiving end of a tirade about what a headache it was to clean up a flooded access road or clear a privately owned culvert.

The relationship between humans and these overbite-stricken rodents has usually been an acrimonious one. However, a well-known group of Alberta riparian-area advocates and its partners hope to change that.

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The goal of the Putting Beavers to Work for Watershed Resiliency and Restoration project is to increase the coexistence of humans and beavers and help landowners recognize the ecosystem services beavers provide.

The Alberta Riparian Habitat Management Society — better known as Cows and Fish— strives to foster a better understanding of how improvements in grazing and other management of riparian areas can enhance landscape health and productivity for the benefit of landowners, agricultural producers and communities. Its beaver program is run in partnership with with the Miistakis Institute.

The Cows and Fish website features stories and videos on how it’s worked with ranchers to demonstrate the value of clean, reliable water for cattle, and it has a program called REAL Beef — Ranchers Enhancing Alberta’s Landscapes.

For producers grazing cattle, beaver activity is part of an ecosystem chain that aids the production of lush, high-nutrient forage in riparian areas and uplands, says Kelsey Spicer-Rawe, a riparian specialist with Cows and Fish.

“In general, there is more productive vegetation around areas that are impacted by beaver,” she says.

Growing interest from landowners and land managers seeking ways to manage and live with beavers has driven the project, Spicer-Rawe says. “This signalled to us a real need for sharing information on how to coexist with beavers and using beavers as a watershed-management tool.”

Cheaper to coexist

Much like riparian areas themselves, it’s hard to attach a dollar value to the benefits of beavers to the landscape, Spicer-Rawe says. However, what little data that’s out there shows it’s less expensive to work with beavers than against them, especially with new tools available to minimize the undeniable damage these rodents can incur.

“There was a University of Alberta study in Beaver County — ironic, I know — which looked at the amount of money municipalities spent every year taking care of plugged culverts, flooded roads and blowing dams versus installing some of these new devices like pond levellers and culvert exclusions which allow beavers to stay on the land,” she says.

“The economics are proving that it’s more beneficial to do the latter.”

Most of the damage beavers cause is the result of the same activity which makes them beneficial: building dams.

Dams can flood roads and plug culverts while dam-building activity takes down valued trees in riparian areas. And yet it’s those same bothersome structures which increase watershed resiliency and restoration, provide habitat for many species and improve water quality by filtering pollutants in runoff. They also catch harmful silt and minimize erosion from flooding.

Beaver dams also help store water during dry years. “They definitely impact plant communities by storing more water on the land and providing more moisture to plant communities,” says Spicer-Rawe.

So does that mean we just leave them alone? That’s not an option either. Beavers and their dams cause problems for farmers and ranchers. Spicer-Rawe says the trick is to strike a balance through management.

“What we’re trying to do is help landowners find ways they can coexist with beavers by helping them find new tools to manage them.”

Staying on the level

Most beaver-management tools, in one way or another, limit their natural activity to a level landowners are comfortable with. In a sense, they allow producers to have their cake and eat it too: they get the benefits of having beavers on the landscape with less of a nuisance.

Barriers of one kind or another are key. According to the book Beaver — Our Watershed Partner by riparian specialist Lorne Fitch, fences and wire mesh can help protect the most beneficial trees in riparian areas (large trees and young trees, for example) while allowing beavers to cut down unwanted hazard or dying trees. This leaves room for canopy growth.

Cows and Fish works with landowners to maintain healthy riparian areas such as this.
photo: Cows and Fish

Wire mesh can also protect culverts and help prevent beavers from damming stream flow. However, Fitch says fencing, coupled with the use of a pipe system to move the intake of water far upstream of the culvert — is the most effective culvert-protection method.

Pond levellers are a beaver-management tool more and more landowners are asking about. Fitch says they manage water in the pond at a level which minimizes flooding problems.

The materials — which often include available, flexible and durable drainage pipe — are initially assembled on the shore with the resulting structure positioned in the pond. Beavers can continue using the pond while the landowner enjoys some flood protection.

“They allow you to decide what water level is tolerable to minimize flooding. The beaver is not able to plug the device so it allows some water flow through the dam,” Spicer-Rawe says.

Fitch’s book is just one of many tools Cows and Fish uses in its Putting Beavers to Work project. Others include fact sheets, videos and work- shops. Many of these tools (or information about them) can be found on the project’s dedicated website.

Dedicated to riparian management

Formed in 1992, Alberta Riparian Habitat Management Society, which runs the Cows and Fish program, is one of Alberta’s oldest non-profit organizations dedicated to education about the value of riparian areas on the landscape. Since 1996 the group has evaluated around 2,300 kilometres of stream and shoreline throughout the province, monitoring it over time for overall health.

“In a nutshell, we help people recognize the importance of a healthy ecosystem — particularly riparian areas — and how their personal choices affect the management of those sites,” says riparian specialist Kelsey Spicer-Rawe. “We support proactive voluntary stewardship by building capacity for change.”

Cows and Fish’s roots run deep in Alberta’s agricultural community due to the many workshops, courses and evaluations it holds for municipalities and landowners wishing to make changes to their riparian management practices. More information is available at the Cows and Fish website and at the Miistakis Institute at rockies.ca.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 30, 2019 issue of the Forage & Grassland Guide.

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