Two beaver families are making homes in Birch Creek. It may not seem to be earth-shattering news to some people, but the tale of their return to the creek reveals several powerful concepts.
The critters represent a decade of effort and many more years of personal growth on the part of one dedicated Mink Creeker, and the benefits his efforts will have for people that will never know him.
Twenty-one years ago, Jay Wilde returned to the home he had been raised in as a child– the last house before the Forest Service border on Birch Creek. He always had a dream to raise and sell cattle, but life had taken him away from his hometown and his dream.
When his family home was headed for the market and he was healed from a valve opener smashing his face in 1994, he decided that it was time to chase his dream and that Mink Creek was the place to do it. So he came home and began making “improvements” to benefit the cattle operation he was building.
“Cattle need two basic things for their survival… something to eat and something to drink,” he wrote in a personal history. The family farm and surrounding Forest Service permits would provide the feed they needed, but the stream he remembered running year-round was drying up mid-summer. It flowed down to a stand of cottonwood trees and disappeared.
“I had to do something to get the stream flowing so the cattle could utilize the feed the land was producing,” he said.
Knowing it to be a problem, he tapped into the knowledge of one of his friends who was a retired hydrologist. Through him, he learned about phreatophyte plants– those that would draw much more water from the water-table than was necessary to survive.
The stand of cottonwoods confirmed to him that his friend was right, and he decided to eliminate the problem. One weekend, he cut down about 60 trees along the streambed. “One wouldn’t believe the stream of water that came running out of those severed tree trunks,” he wrote, and water filled the creek… until it reached another stand of cottonwoods.
Just as he was deciding he would have to eliminate more trees, an agent from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality confirmed to him that there were regulations against what he’d done.
“I was in deep #$@^!,” wrote Wilde. Consequently, the other tree stands were spared, and he started looking for another solution to his need for more water.
He found water seeping to the ground surface on part of his property and developed it into a spring that filled a watering trough. But even it dried up during the hottest part of late summer.
His next discovery was “pure coincidence,” he wrote.
In an effort to establish better grass for his cattle, he had been clearing brush on different parts of the property. Three or four days after he cleared a couple acres of land above the dried-up spring he’d developed out of the seep, he was riding his horse there and noticed water running again.
“There had been no storms, the weather was still hot and dry; the only thing that had changed was that I’d cleaned part of the brush on the slope above the seep– more proof that it was vegetation that was causing Birch Creek to be dry.
This time he decided to work with the government agencies and found some cost-share funds through the Natural Resource Conservation Service that helped him develop more springs, which he piped to a variety of troughs. Wilde was finally able to provide his cattle with the water they needed to be healthy.
But something was bothering him. He remembered from time he spent in the hills as a boy in the ‘50s that water should be running year round from Birch Creek.
“There were all sorts of plants and animals that depends on that stream having water in it. …We just can’t throw our hands in the air and walk away. That’s not fair to all of the life that depends on that water,” he thought.
His concerns lead him his to spend “considerable time reading and doing searches on the internet trying to get some insight into a solution to the problem.”
He learned about the concept of interception in the water cycle the concept of succession in the plant life of an area. He learned how soil is created and how “disturbances” such as grazing, floods, fire, wind, insects, machines, and chemical treatments, will set back the natural succession of which plants will grow in an area.
He visited with people in the hydrology department from Utah State University and was told that Birch Creek was drying up because of climate change and that there was nothing anyone could do about it.
“If we are truly dealing with climate change… doesn’t that tell us that we need some serious and progressive management of our watersheds before all of our streams dry up as Birch Creek has done? Climate change should be viewed as a challenge rather than an excuse,” he thought.
After years of self-educating, Wilde found himself more frustrated than anything else. Forest Service policies would not allow him to do much of what he felt was necessary to restore perennial flows in Birch Creek, but he couldn’t bring himself to accept the hopeless climate change answer, either.
“One morning in 2006 I was sitting at my kitchen table at 4:30 a.m., waiting for the caffeine from that first cup of coffee to kick in when it dawned on me… there was no beaver activity in the drainage,” he wrote.
From his childhood days, when the stream ran perennially, he remembered at least three separate beaver colonies in the canyon.
“My family and friends spent much time fishing, swimming, and watching the activity in the beaver ponds. Now in 2006, those ponds are all gone and there’s no sign of the rodents that built and maintained them. Could it be that the absence of those critters with their ponds and harvesting the woody species in the riparian areas was contributing to the demise of our stream?” he wondered.
The questions fueled further research and Wilde contacted anyone he could find with knowledge of beaver and their impact on an area.
What he discovered was that when beaver dam up an area, the water table around the dam is raised significantly. The ground acts like a big sponge that keeps the water cool and slowly releases it as the season progresses.
“We don’t actually see any more water created. What we see is a change in the timing that it is released,” he wrote.
Through much trial and error, including the disappearance of 13 different beaver he transplanted in Birch Creek, over several years, Wilde said he finally found the right group of hydrologists, biologists, and agency directors to help him create an environment in which the beaver would stay. (He estimates over 100 people have been involved in the entire repopulation process.)
In 2014, they created 19 mini-dams to encourage the beaver families they imported. He discovered that beaver are highly family-oriented and won’t stay put without their complete family unit.
Last year, beaver were introduced to the area again, and this time, they were still there when Wilde returned last spring to look for them. The creatures had transformed one grassy meadow into a series of terraced dams, with water flowing out each side of them.
The beaver have built up some of the temporary dams, ignored others, and built their own dams. They are in the process of building a lodge on one of them.
Now, in late October, water is still running in Birch Creek and native cutthroat trout have found their way into the dams.
This fall, Wilde and his team of scientists and volunteers brought four more beaver and released them in Mill Hollow, which branches off Birch Creek by the second cattle guard there.
“They are hard at work, building a dam– actually expanding on one of the man-made dams we put in this summer. We wanted to get two different families so when they disperse and start seeking mates we have some genetic diversity,” he said.
Last fall, he and some of the professors from USU held a meeting to let his Birch Creek neighbors know what was going on.
“About 20 people came,” said Lyla Dettmer of the Franklin Soil and Water Conservation office. “
The general consensus was returning beaver to the canyon is “a good thing as long as they stay up there....and out of the private irrigation ditches, where they become a nuisance, they are good. The NRCS and those guys spent years removing beaver and trapping. them. At that time they thought it was the beaver ponds that held the water and kept it from coming down. Today we know that they keep the stream more perennial,” she said.
“Watershed needs all components to be healthy. You can’t swing the pendulum too far one way or the other,” she said.
Wilde enjoys monitoring the Birch Creek Beaver activities, and finds himself pondering a story involving his aunt who grew up along Strawberry Creek. She was baptized in that creek. One would look long and futilely to find anywhere along Strawberry Creek deep enough to do that now. But then, beaver once lived along that stream, too, he said.
“I used to think the beaver left because the water did. I now think the water left because the beaver did,” he said.
Wilde has learned much in the pursuit of improving the Birch Creek watershed, and his efforts offer much in understanding the impact one person can have, the power of education and the importance of a lifelong pursuit of education, the value of knowledge carried by a community’s older residents, the effectiveness of cooperation, and that all life is connected.