June 2013

Beaver and Their Dams

Stitching Together New Mexico’s Streams and Rivers and Boosting the Outdoor Economy


Bryan Bird

Dam-building beaver (Castor canadensis) once occupied most streams in New Mexico below tree line. The loss and absence of beaver from significant portions of their historic habitat has disconnected aquatic systems and considerably undermines resilience and adaptation to climate change.


Restoration of aquatic, wetland and riparian ecosystems by beaver can be a simple, elegant and cost-effective way to reconnect currently disjointed fish populations and adapt to climate change. The connectivity of these aquatic ecosystems is critical for fish species whose populations have dwindled and been separated into isolated refuges. These disconnected populations can no longer interbreed and replenish suffering numbers and are especially vulnerable to wildfire events or severe drought years. Many other wildlife use riparian corridors to travel our state safely within and between their core territories.


Beaver, with their dams and ponds and the related wetland and aquatic ecosystems, can serve not only to greatly enhance the persistence and movement of many imperiled native animals and plants; they also increase water storage in watersheds that are undergoing dramatic changes in runoff patterns. Beavers have long been valued as ecosystem engineers who increase biodiversity, including numerous threatened and endangered species such as the Río Grande cutthroat trout, the Gila trout, Southwestern willow flycatcher and the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse.


Dam-building beaver are not only critical for the perseverance of imperiled species, but also for ensuring a robust and healthy outdoors srecreation industry in NM. Recreational fishing and other outdoors activities associated with healthy streams and rivers is big business in NM and a tradition for many families. According to the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, 304,000 hunters and anglers spent $579 million in NM in 2011, generating $58 million in state and local taxes. Hunters and anglers support nearly as many jobs in NM as Los Alamos National Laboratories.


According to Headwaters Economics, an economic think tank in Montana, more than 84,000 non-resident fishermen spent 467,000 days fishing in NM in 2006 and contributed $99 million to the state economy. Headwaters finds that outdoors recreation alone generated $2.75 billion in retail sales. NM’s fish, wildlife and habitats annually contribute $3.8 billion to the state’s economy through hunting, fishing and outdoors recreation. These activities sustain 47,000 jobs (more than farming and forestry combined) and generate more than $184 million in yearly gross receipts tax revenue.


Though primarily a dry state, NM has approximately 234 square miles of rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs. Riparian habitats are assemblages of plant, animal and aquatic communities that tie our state together. A significant percentage of all wildlife in the Southwest uses riparian habitat to feed, take shelter and travel, but wetlands and riparian ecosystems comprise less than 1 percent of the NM.


These riparian habitats stitch together our arid state for wildlife, anglers and recreationists alike. The beaver is an ally in ensuring this connectivity. Though not always appropriate in heavily developed human landscapes, beaver and their ponds are critical in less developed places. There are many strategies for living with beaver that landowners can implement (http://www.apnm.org/campaigns/beavers/land_owner_guide.php). We can and should celebrate our furry little engineer where we can.


In an effort to begin the work of reestablishing beaver, their dams and historic wetlands across the state, WildEarth Guardians, in partnership with the NM Environment Department Wetlands Program, embarked on a project to map all potential, suitable and occupied habitat on federal lands in NM. The mapping exercise employed Geographic Information System technology to assemble important habitat requirements of dam-building beaver and predict suitable locations where the animals could be now and where they could be with habitat restoration. The maps will be made available to the public and can help prioritize habitat restoration funding and placement for beaver and wetlands reestablishment.


WildEarth Guardians anticipates using this information in directing its ecosystem restoration efforts and also as the catalyst for a statewide beaver management plan. Such plans are in place in Utah and Oregon and can significantly alleviate human-beaver conflicts by identifying how, when and where problem beaver can be relocated. Such a strategic and intentional approach to beaver management would reduce the need for lethal control as well as allow the state to maximize the benefits dam-building beaver can provide for wetlands, riparian connectivity and adaptation to climate change.



Bryan Bird, WildEarth Guardians’ Wild Places program director, has a MA in conservation biology from NMSU. He has undertaken conservation research, planning and protection projects in Central America, Mexico and the US Southwest. 505.819.5922, www.wildearthguardians.org





Last month the NM Environment Department Wetland Program hosted 70 people for a workshop on beaver and wetlands. In attendance were state and federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, acequia organizations and private landowners. There were presentations on the ecosystem services beaver and their dams provide, models for determining potential and suitable habitat for beaver, Utah’s state beaver management plan, and beaver-human coexistence. After hearty discussions around the benefits and challenges of beaver and where to go next, those in attendance agreed that the next steps for NM include a demonstration project and initiating a statewide beaver management plan.




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