Weather patterns are changing. Earlier snowmelt, rain-on-snow events, and increased precipitation is expected to increase flooding in late winter and early spring. Yet with climate change, we are also seeing decreasing summer stream flows. To adapt, we need to store water in places where it brings the most benefit to people and nature. Beaver dams slow down the flow of streams. They recharge groundwater and create deep ponds that provide habitat for fish and other aquatic life. Beaver dams also create floodplains that improve water quality, enhance habitat for birds, and reduce the risk of flood damage to man-made structures. A single beaver is capable of storing 10 acre-feet (ca. 3.26 million gallons) of water in its lifetime 1. Increasing natural water storage is a key way to adapt to a changing climate.
While beavers and their dams are a vital part of any wetland ecosystem, they can also create conflict, particularly in urban and residential areas. Beavers can cut down prized trees and flood roads and residential areas. During the Ksik Stakii (Beaver) Project, a pilot project, we will demonstrate and test using best beaver management practices and tools by applying non-lethal beaver management techniques, such as beaver deceivers, head gate protection, and tree fencing.
Beaver mimicry is a restoration technique that has been gaining popularity due to its cheap, easy, and effective application. By building small dams from natural materials such as willow and sod, beaver mimicry increases natural groundwater storage, reconnects floodplains, and restores wetlands. Groundwater, or water stored in aquifers, is particularly important for drought resilience due to its accessibility during drier periods such as late summer. During this pilot project, we are working with students to demonstrate and test using beaver mimicry in a couple of places in the Blackfeet Nation. We hope to increase natural water storage and restore riparian areas, enhancing resilience to warming temperatures, more frequent flooding, and reduced late-summer stream flows.
Underground aquifers can store more water than surface water storage techniques such as large dams and reservoirs. California’s Department of Water Resources estimated that the state’s groundwater storage capacity is between 850 million and 1.3 billion acre-feet while surface water storage is less than 50 million acre-feet in all major reservoirs 2.
Beavers and beaver mimicry assist in groundwater recharge. Groundwater provides drinking water for over 97% of the rural population in the United States 3 and is relied upon for livestock, irrigation and other industrial purposes 4.
Blackfeet Community College Native Science Fellows will have an opportunity to learn about climate change, natural water storage, beavers, and beaver mimicry in the classroom and in the field. During the summer, these students will get hands-on experience constructing beaver dam analogues (BDAs) in the Blackfeet Nation. Throughout the project, we will work with students to monitor the streams and riparian areas to see what changes occur due to beaver mimicry.
Beavers have been an integral part of Blackfeet culture for millennia. The Ksik Stakii Project is deeply rooted in that cultural connection. During the project, there will be gatherings for youth, natural resource managers, producers, and elders to share stories and understanding about beavers and protecting our lands. This gathering will also serve as a forum to discuss the urgency and importance of climate change adaptation.
The Ksik Stakii Project is a partnership between Blackfeet Nation Fish and Wildlife, Blackfeet Community College, Blackfeet Environmental Office, the Blackfeet Agriculture Resource Management Planning Team, and the Center for Large Landscape Conservation. Support for this initiative is provided by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Big Sky Watershed AmeriCorps, the Clif Bar Family Foundation, the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance, and Temper of the Times Foundation.
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Below, a beaver in the Blackfeet Nation slaps its tail on the water. Video provided by Jordan Kennedy.