LOGAN, Utah (ABC4) — Cache County got its name because trappers used to use the area as a safe place to hide their pelts and hides.
Beaver pelts were a hot commodity in Utah’s early history, and hunters killed the animal at extraordinary rates. However, that trade continues to decline as people learn more about the importance beavers play in the ecosystem.
One center in northern Utah is working to reintroduce trapped beavers to water systems across the state to improve life for people and animals alike with the help of biologists, researchers, volunteers and even ranchers.
Experts say doing so can improve drought conditions, create safe havens for other species and even protect homes from wildfires.
Beavers are native to the Beehive State, but “they were almost driven to extinction,” said Nate Norman, the lead biologist at Utah State University’s Beaver Ecology and Relocation Center.
For hundreds of years, people hunted beavers for their fur.
“The trappers used to use this valley as an area to come and do the Mountain Man Rendezvous, trade their furs and things like that,” Norman said.
The fur trade is dying, and this is beneficial to the beavers that would otherwise be killed. Nonetheless, the benefit is much greater than that.
“It’s always been a good valley for beavers and for mountain men and now we’ve kind of just turned the circle around,” Norman stated. “Now, instead of trapping and using the furs, we’re trapping and using the beavers to do the restoration.”
Beavers, Norman said, are a keystone species.
The center takes beavers that are trapped for being a nuisance — often in commercial areas, near homes and on golf courses — and reintroduces them into the wild. Before being released into the wild, the animals will need a quick checkup.
“We house them here. We keep water in the pens. We flush it and clean it every day. We keep them fed, make sure they’re safe and that there are no injuries,” said Becky Yeager, a volunteer for BERC.
“I think the first time I held a beaver was when I was checking one in,” she said. “Nate let me hold it, and my heart was forever changed and forever dedicated to this.”
Yeager is so committed to helping the beavers that she’s now the volunteer coordinator for the center and plans to be a part of the program for as long as she can.
“We always say it’s a win, win, win,” she said. “These beavers would be lethally trapped.”
She explained it’s a win because beavers are released into an ecosystem that needs to be restored, and a win for the volunteers who benefit–physically, emotionally and spiritually–just by working with the animals.
“We use beavers as a tool in our habitat restoration projects,” said Habitat Restoration Biologist Shane Hill.
BERC works with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and its biologists, like Shane Hill, to restore wetlands across the state. Hill told ABC4 that introducing beavers into areas could improve drought conditions by slowing the flow of snowmelt runoff to lakes and reservoirs.
“It reaches it at the time of year when we need it most instead of just a big runoff in the spring,” he added.
Along with creating small, natural reservoirs to stop runoff, beavers can improve hunting. Those reservoirs expand and enhance vegetation in the surrounding area.
“When all the other grass is really dried out and not as nutritious, they can come up to the riparian areas that are expanded because of beavers,” Hill said.
Riparian areas are made up of lands that run along bodies of water and rivers. They support life and vegetation that is often different (and more diverse) from the surrounding land. Hill said these areas are super beneficial to ranchers as they establish and maintain land that is rich in nutrients and food for grazing cattle.
He explained that these natural reservoirs often improve life for fish populations, which again, is great for the outdoorsman who likes to fish and hunt.
Not only that, but a growing beaver population could save Utah homes from wildfires.
“[Beavers] increase the wetted area which acts as an effective way to stop or slow down wildfires when they come up to those riparian areas,” Hill said.
In other words, the ecosystems created and maintained by beavers create natural firebreaks.
Introducing beavers back into Utah lands creates many benefits, and it greatly reduces the cost as well.
“It’s so much cheaper to do it that way, and they will just keep reproducing and creating more,” Norman said.
BERC cannot release beavers in the winter because that would greatly reduce their chances of survival. However, with spring just around the corner, they’re preparing for a busy season as more people are choosing to trap the animals and turn them over to the center for relocation.