Enhancing Ranch Revenues and Watershed Health
The ReBeaver Project is an innovative ranch restoration enterprise that is working with ranch owners and operators to restore degraded streams and valleys by reverse-engineering historic, beaver-dependent stream, wetland, and wet meadow ecosystems in the Western United States.
Combining careful analysis of local and historical conditions and the use of a variety of simple, easily-adaptable in-channel structures known as “artificial beaver dams” (ABDs) and “beaver dam analogues” (BDAs), we are working with ranch owners and operators to slow rapid channel erosion throughout ranch watersheds; restore historic wetland and riparian ecosystems; and capture and store water in floodplain aquifers, raising groundwater levels and improving drought resilience in valley floor ecosystems.
Projects that promote the restoration of ecosystems that beavers once helped to support are increasingly being recognized as a vital, cost effective approach to drive watershed-scale ecosystem restoration that can produce ecological and economic benefits. The ReBeaver Project is bringing a combination of scientific understanding, practical experience, and deliberate monitoring and adaptive management to drive real increases in ranch revenue while working to reverse the impacts of more than two centuries of erosion and ecological decline.
Once ubiquitous across most of North America, beaver populations were quickly reduced to a fraction of their original numbers by trapping, habitat loss, and other pressures connected to European settlement. This, together with changes in land use and settlement, set off cascading changes in landscapes where beavers had historically played a key ecological role – a transformation whose significance and extent is still only partially understood and appreciated.
As understanding of the ecological importance of beavers has increased, there has been growing interest in the deliberate reintroduction of beavers to combat erosion, maintain and restore wetlands and riparian habitat, increase water retention and baseflows, and improve water quality. However, millions of stream miles that were once occupied and managed by beavers have experienced a significant degree of erosion, downcutting, loss of riparian vegetation, and/or reductions or elimination of surface flow. These types of adverse conditions are particularly prevalent in the arid and semi-arid areas of the Western United States, where relatively few perennial streams remain intact. Reintroducing beaver may not be a viable approach to biophysical restoration in such marginal environments, where beaver will face high initial mortality due to predators, limited food sources, and lack of shelter.
In these settings, the construction of BDAs and ABDs can help to jump-start or even re-establish the ecosystem functions that beaver dams historically provided: first working to control erosion and reduce stream flow velocity, restore overbank flooding, replenish floodplain aquifers, induce in-channel aggradation, and create the conditions for the success of native vegetation; second, allowing the recovery of riparian vegetation and stream conditions necessary for beaver to thrive; and finally permitting beaver to recolonize treated areas and maintain them in a restored condition.
Our experience shows that this approach, which can be undertaken at relatively low cost, can produce significant ecological changes that benefit ranch operations by rebuilding floodplain aquifers, rapidly increasing the aerial extent of meadows, improving soil organic matter and soil moisture, and pushing back sagebrush and other vegetation that has encroached as a result of hydrologic degradation. In appropriate settings, this can allow working ranches to increase their harvestable volumes and quality of hay, generate more forage and expand herd sizes for cattle and other grazing animals, and create new revenue opportunities by enhancing wildlife populations and restoring fisheries.
At a regional scale, this type of restoration creates not only significant ecological benefits – by creating and restoring wildlife and bird habitat – but may also help to manage wildfire risks by re-creating landscape-level firebreaks. This can help to prevent devastating fires that damage ecosystems, threaten downstream areas with fire-related erosion, and destroy lives and property. This type of restoration can also generate benefits to downstream users by improving natural water infrastructure – controlling and reversing erosion and downcutting of streams and re-creating floodplain aquifer storage. Taken together, these changes can capture and release runoff in a manner that can restore water to ephemeral and intermittent streams, while reducing flooding risks in downstream areas.
We believe that this approach has the potential to drive significant, cost-effective improvements in watershed health throughout the West, re-creating natural storage infrastructure across entire river systems by increasing water retention in floodplain aquifers and rebuilding wet meadow ecosystems, controlling wildfire risks, and increasing and restoring the productivity of working range lands – benefiting stressed rural economies by improving the margins of an industry that manages and stewards the vast majority of public and private lands in the West.