Cedar City • The first relocation of beavers under a revised state management plan went swimmingly, according to state wildlife officials.
Since Friday, nine of the rodents have been released in a southern Utah stream in the Dixie National Forest under terms of a plan that allows biologists to trap and transplant beavers to sites where they can help restore watershed and landscapes.
This relocation was set in motion by Merril Evans, who owns irrigated pasture land in Panguitch where six of the beavers were trapped. Evans said he called the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) and asked what he could do when he noticed beavers were cutting down trees on his property. He gave permission for the animals to be trapped.
"They were really great guys," he said of a biologist and a volunteer from the Grand Canyon Trust. They not only trapped the rodents but protected still standing trees with wire fencing to prevent future problems from other beavers.
According to Dustin Schiable, a biologist in the DWR Cedar City office, the revised management plan has been in the works since 2009, and involved a coalition interested in saving the beavers, whose diminished numbers are attributed to human activity such as trapping. Before the plan was adopted in 2010, landowners obtained permits from the DWR and usually killed the beavers.
Schiable said beavers are considered by some private landowners to be a "nuisance species" because they fell trees and block water channels.
The new management plan reflects the current thinking that beavers can improve landscapes. Jeremy Christensen, a biologist with the Grand Canyon Trust, which played an active role in revising the management plan, said the transplant should provide a prime example of how relocation can be used as a management tool.
Beaver dams are a natural way to regulate stream flows, especially in areas of heavy runoff where the animals have been eradicated. The dams create ponds that slowly let out water as needed. Once a pond is created, it can spur development of meadows and habitat for other species, including the boreal toad, listed as a sensitive species in Utah that survives best in conditions created by beavers, Christensen said.
"They repair waterways," he said.
Beaver dams also encourage growth of willows, cottonwood trees and aspen, a beaver delicacy.
The American beaver, the only species on the North America continent, is a strict vegetarian that eats the bark of trees then uses the left-overs to build dams that can also serve as their housing. Dams also help restore stream banks by regulating pond flows to filter out silt.
"It is a tremendous benefit for the land and [streams]," said Schiable of the new plan. "Everyone benefits."
Christensen, who has a license from the DWR, trapped the beavers in Panguitch. The animals were then quarantined in Cedar City to make sure they were not carrying any aquatic invasive species that could damage fisheries.
Schiable said the beavers released Monday included at least two females and two males; the gender of the others was unknown. He didn't know if they were from the same family group, but is optimistic they will breed.
The beavers were freed at the site of a dilapidated beaver dam that hasn't been used in several years, but the eager builders began restoring the structure immediately. Christensen said volunteers with the Grand Canyon Trust will help him monitor the animals' progress and activity.
Norman McKee, a retired DWR biologist who supports the revised plan, said when he worked for the agency he killed beavers until he realized their value in restoring mismanaged watershed.
"Fifteen to 20 years ago I learned I didn't want to kill them anymore," he said. "I wanted to use them for something positive."
McKee believes that when beaver populations were healthy, there were fewer problems with mass erosion. While the new, statewide management plan is good, he said it must be pushed aggressively and the public needs to be educated about its benefits.
American beaver facts
Range • North America, where they are largest rodent species.
Size • Usually 40 to 60 pounds, but some have grown to nearly 100 pounds.
Litters • Four to six kits.
Life expectancy • Up to 15 years.
Enemies • Include coyotes, foxes, birds of prey, humans.
Source • Jeremy Christensen, biologist with the Grand Canyon Trust