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There is substantial evidence that beaver-related restoration, via beaver translocation and the construction of beaver dam analogues, has the potential to increase the climate resiliency of Washington’s stream and riparian ecosystems (summarized in Table 1). By reducing summer water temperatures, increasing summer flows, and enhancing floodplain habitat, beavers and beaver-related restoration can benefit species of conservation concern, including trout, salmon, and amphibians. In addition, beaver-related restoration can ameliorate the negative impacts of high-flow events, create fire-resistant habitat patches in fire-prone landscapes, and foster heterogeneous mosaics of habitat that enhance the watershed-level biodiversity of aquatic and riparian ecosystems. However, these benefits are only likely to accrue under certain conditions, and there is a gap between our understanding of the aspirational potential of beaver-related restoration (what it can accomplish) and the realized benefits of restoration actions (what it does accomplish).
Beavers are ecosystem engineers that create and maintain riparian wetland ecosystems in a variety of ecologic, climatic, and physical settings. Despite the large-scale implications of ongoing beaver conservation and range expansion, relatively few landscape-scale studies have been conducted, due in part to the significant time required to manually locate beaver dams at scale. To address this need, we developed EEAGER—an image recognition machine learning model that detects beaver complexes in aerial and satellite imagery. We developed the model in the western United States using 13,344 known beaver dam locations and 56,728 nearby locations without beaver dams. Performance assessment was performed in twelve held out evaluation polygons of known beaver occupancy but previously unmapped dam locations. These polygons represented regions similar to the training data as well as more novel landscape settings. Our model performed well overall (accuracy = 98.5%, recall = 63.03%, precision = 25.83%) in these areas, with stronger performance in regions similar to where the model had been trained. We favored recall over precision, which results in a more complete catalog of beaver dams found but also a higher incidence of false positives to be manually removed during quality control. These results have far-reaching implications for monitoring of beaver-based river restoration, as well as potential applications detecting other complex landforms.
Restoring Western Headwater Streams with Low-Tech Process-Based Methods: A Review of the Science and Case Study Results, Challenges and Opportunities
This report reviews published research and unpublished case study information on the effects ofrestoring incised and degraded headwater streams in western states with low-tech processbased restoration methods (LTPBR). LTPBR is a subset of process-based restoration (PBR) that seeks to re-establish natural stream processes by reconnecting incised streams with their floodplains and adjacent wetlands so that more frequent inundation of the floodplain occurs. Projects involve the use of simple, temporary, hand-built wood and rock structures that mimic
natural beaver structures, acting as speed bumps that capture sediments to aggrade the stream. LTPBR approaches are substantially less expensive than form-based stream restoration approaches that employ heavy equipment.i This approach is appealing in part because low project costs enable implementation at a scale that can respond to the extent of floodplain alteration, which is estimated at 45% of headwaters streams in Colorado. ii Negative effects of disconnected floodplains include lower groundwater tables, lower summer base flows,
warmer water temperatures, and substantial loss of riparian habitat.
Comparing translocated beavers used as passive restoration tools to resident beavers in degraded desert rivers
Wildlife translocation facilitates conservation efforts, including recovering imperiled species, reducing human–wildlife conflict, and restoring degraded ecosystems. Beaver (American, Castor canadensis; Eurasian, C. fiber) translocation may mitigate human–wildlife conflict and facilitate ecosystem restoration. However, few projects measure outcomes of translocations by monitoring beaver postrelease, and translocation to desert streams is relatively rare. We captured, tagged, and monitored 47 American beavers (hereafter, beavers) which we then translocated to two desert rivers in Utah, USA, to assist in passive river restoration. We compared translocated beaver site fidelity, survival, and dam-building behavior to 24 resident beavers. We observed high apparent survival (i.e., survived and stayed in the study site) for eight weeks postrelease of resident adult beavers (0.88 ± 0.08; standard error) and lower but similar apparent survival rates between resident subadult (0.15 ± 0.15), translocated adult (0.26 ± 0.12), and translocated subadult beavers (0.09 ± 0.08). Neither the pre- nor the post-translocation count of river reaches with beaver dams were predicted well by the Beaver Restoration Assessment Tool, which estimates maximum beaver dam capacity by river reach, suggesting beaver-related restoration is not maximized in these rivers. Translocated beavers exhibited similar characteristics as resident subadult beavers during dispersal; they were more vulnerable to predation and many emigrated from the study sites. High mortality and low site fidelity should be anticipated when translocating beavers, but even so, translocation may have contributed to additional beaver dams in the restoration sites, which is the common goal of beaver-assisted river restoration. Multiple releases at targeted restoration sites may eventually result in establishment and meet conservation objectives for desert rivers.
Hydrologic extremes dominate chemical exports from riparian zones and dictate water quality in major river systems. Yet, changes in land use and ecosystem services alongside growing climate variability are altering hydrologic extremes and their coupled impacts on riverine water quality. In the western U.S., warming temperatures and intensified aridification are increasingly paired with the expanding range of the American beaver—and their dams, which transform hydrologic and biogeochemical cycles in riparian systems. Here, we show that beaver dams overshadow climatic hydrologic extremes in their effects on water residence time and oxygen and nitrogen fluxes in the riparian subsurface. In a mountainous watershed in Colorado, U.S.A., we find that the increase in riparian hydraulic gradients imposed by a beaver dam is 10.7–13.3 times greater than seasonal hydrologic extremes. The massive hydraulic gradient increases hyporheic nitrate removal by 44.2% relative to seasonal extremes alone. A drier, hotter climate in the western U.S. will further expand the range of beavers and magnify their impacts on watershed hydrology and biogeochemistry, illustrating that ecosystem feedbacks to climate change will alter water quality in river systems.
Rivers and streams, when fully connected to their floodplains, are naturally resilient systems that are increasingly part of the conversation on nature-based climate solutions. Reconnecting waterways to their floodplains improves water quality and quantity, supports biodiversity and sensitive species conservation, increases flood, drought and fire resiliency, and bolsters carbon sequestration. But, while the importance of river restoration is clear, beaver-based restoration—for example, strategic coexistence, relocation, and mimicry—remains an underutilized strategy despite ample data demonstrating its efficacy. Climate-driven disturbances are actively pushing streams into increasingly degraded states, and the window of opportunity for restoration will not stay open forever. Therefore, now is the perfect time to apply the science of beaver-based low-tech process-based stream restoration to support building climate resilience across the landscape. Not every stream will be a good candidate for beaver-based restoration, but we have the tools to know which ones are. Let us use them.