by Christopher M. West
Douglas County Land Conservancy
This short case study illustrates an example of coexistence of recently recolonized beavers with ranching activities, namely cattle grazing and hay production. I visited this site in 1997 while completing baseline inventories for conservation easements on the ranch and on neighboring properties.
The ranch is a small (less than 500 acres) cattle and hay operation located at approximately 7000 feet in southern Douglas County Colorado. The property is set in shortgrass prairie environment dominated by western wheatgrass, blue grama and the noxious weed, diffuse knapweed. A small perennial stream, which has its headwaters a few miles away at the base of the Front Range foothills, bisects the ranch and hay production areas. This stream has become deeply incised and is bordered in places by stands of coyote and peachleaf willow.
Beavers apparently recolonized a portion of the stream in the past 5 years. The constriction of numerous dams has flooded the creekbed and created long (up to 50m) and narrow (8 to 10m) impoundments. The impoundments have raised the local water table to the point where the neighboring hay meadows are now and do not require surface irrigation to be used. The property owner is willing to give up a few acres of flooded meadow in return for the irrigation the beavers provided. Following late summer harvest of the hay, cattle are grazed on the meadows, and the beaver ponds provide better water sources for the cattle than existed previously.
In addition to the economic benefit realized by the property owner, riparian wildlife habitat has been increased. Downstream water users also benefit from the flows and filtering services provided by the beaver dams. This example is interesting for its demonstration value showing increased agricultural productivity while wildlife habitat increases and watershed benefits are accrued to all users of the watershed.