Beavers and Hunters Restore Riparian Habitat

Restoring Emerald Islands: Collaborative Conservation at Work for Game Species

  • Shelby Weigand, Senior Coordinator of Riparian Connectivity for the National Wildlife Federation
  • Aug 31, 2022

In late July under the garish heat of north-central Montana, volunteers assisted NWF, Montana Wildlife Federation, and BLM in gathering willow for a riparian restoration project funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and National Wild Turkey Federation. These semi-arid landscapes historically supported communities of box elder, willow, and cottonwood, along with their mammalian ecosystem partner who propagated them, beaver. As land use practices altered watersheds and beaver were trapped out of these systems, water itself became more scarce, impairing the hydrologic, geologic, and biologic functions essential to survival in the American West. But as collaborative conservation efforts strengthen, the narrative of dry, eroding streams in the Missouri River grasslands is starting to change.

Willow Volunteers standing together outside

Volunteers, many of which from the Montana’s Master Hunter program, staged willow at two project sites, Reed Coulee and Rose Creek, both located on BLM land within and near the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument respectively. After three full days, the willow volunteers collected were used by crews, weaving branches between posts, mimicking beavers engineering skills, albeit using hand tools instead of teeth. The goal of these structures is not for people to attain mastery in underwater basket weaving, but rather to retain water on the landscape later in the season to create a more drought-resilient ecosystem supporting a diversity of species such as the Greater sage-grouse which rely on nutritionally rich riparian habitat for brood rearing in the spring. When water reaches these structures during runoff, it slows the velocity at which it moves through the system, pooling in some areas and increasing the temporal distribution of soil moisture, recharging ground water reserves, and reconnecting the channel with its historic floodplain where water-adapted riparian-wetland plant communities may recover.  Agricultural valley bottoms, riparian and riverine systems, and large areas of CRP provide significant and diverse upland game bird and turkey hunting opportunity.

Though the process of fully restoring riparian ecosystems like these can be slow in terms of geologic and hydrologic time, we can see impactful shifts in just a few years. This project will demonstrate how these structures elicit landscape-scale changes over time through monitoring and replication. Ultimately, with the support of Chadwick Consulting, Anabranch Solutions LLC, University of Wyoming, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Northern Great Plains Joint Venture, Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks, private landowners, and dedicated volunteers, this project will link to a larger collaborative effort to restore our riparian systems throughout the American West. Working at a landscape scale, across land ownership boundaries, is win for conservationists, landowners, and sportsmen/woman alike.

Beaver habitat

Shelby Weigand is the Senior Coordinator of Riparian Connectivity for the National Wildlife Federation. Shelby leads low-tech process-based restoration work on public and private lands in north-central Montana, cooperating with the BLM and our many agency and nonprofit partners. In addition to this restoration work, Shelby represents the Federation in the Montana Beaver Conflict Resolution collaborative project (with the Clark Fork Coalition and Defenders of Wildlife), and coordinates the Montana Beaver Working Group.

Learn more about the Montana Beaver Conflict Resolution Project by watching this video, reading their 2019-2021 impact report, and checking out the resources below...

Make Way for Beavers – 6/25/20
Good PR for Beavers – 9/2/19
Interning in Conflict Resolution: How do we co-exist with our wildlife neighbors – 8/3/20
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MT FWP) Living With Beaver information sheet

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The Great American Outdoors Act will fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund while investing in a backlog of public land maintenance, providing current and future generations the outdoor recreation opportunities like boat launches to access fishable waters, shooting ranges, and public lands to hunt as well as the economic stimulus we need right now. 

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