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Study: Even during intense wildfires, beaver-dammed waterways provide major wildfire protection

Beavers have already started to rewild this section of the river.
Manuel Valdes
In this Sept. 12, 2014, photo, a tagged 50-pound male beaver nicknamed "Quincy" swims in a water hole near Ellensburg, Wash., after he and his family were relocated by a team from the Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group. (AP Photo/Manuel Valdes)

Wildfires are increasing in size and intensity, and billions are spent every year fighting them. New research published by the Geological Society of America suggests land managers could have a new ally to turn to: beavers.

When beavers get to work along mountain waterways, they can quickly turn them into sprawling wetlands. And those wetlands, according to new research, effectively provide critical refuge for plants and animals during even intense wildfires, and aid in recovery post-fire. Looking at three major 2020 wildfires in Colorado and Wyoming, researchers found that nearly 90 percent of beaver-dammed riverscapes could be classified as so-called fire refugia, while just 60 percent of riverscapes without dams could.

“Beaver populations, and in turn beaver dam building, can be part of a comprehensive fire-mitigation strategy while offering additional benefits to biological communities, including humans, even when fire is not an active threat,” the paper concludes.

“From a policy perspective, I think what that could look like is really encouraging beavers to come back to these public lands and focusing our efforts on getting them into those that historically they did occupy and very high numbers,” said lead author Emily Fairfax, an assistant geography professor at the University of Minnesota.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.

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