KS Wild Side: Beaver recovery benefits stream habitat

Rogue Riverkeeper’s Program Director Frances Oyung shows the impact a beaver dam can have on a small waterway such as Bear Creek. Since beavers moved in, a portion of Bear Creek that was no wider than 5 feet across has increased dramatically, creating a wider, slower streamflow. KS Wild photo by Haleigh Martin
March 15, 2022

Riparian area benefits deserve protection from urban encroachment

By Emily Bowes

Rogue Riverkeeper is dedicated to advocating for the protection and preservation of clean water in the Rogue River Basin for the benefit of aquatic species, healthy communities, and recreation opportunities. When thinking about these ideas it can be easy to focus on the main channel of the Rogue River and not the smaller streams and creeks that flow into the river, such as Bear Creek. The water provided by these tributaries are very important to the health of the Rogue River, but so are the wildlife and vegetation that buffers these waters, known as riparian areas.

Riparian areas like Bear Creek supply food, cover, and water for a large diversity of animals. Trees and grasses in riparian areas stabilize stream banks and reduce flood water velocity, resulting in reduced downstream flood peaks.

This important biome is also home to one of nature’s most industrious engineers, the North American beaver. This keystone species was hunted nearly to extinction in Oregon for their fur, but has made a considerable comeback in recent years due to recent advocacy efforts. Beavers are critical to the recovery of other land species, as well as salmon and other aquatic species, due to their unique behaviors.

Rogue Riverkeeper’s Conservation Director Emily Bowes and Program Director Frances Oyung survey water levels at Bear Creek in the burn scar of the Almeda Fire. Photo by Maria Fernandez of Still Mountain Studio

Beavers modify the aquatic landscape by building dams, digging channels and changing small streams into broad wetland areas. Their ponds and channels, in particular, slow down water flow and spread it out into the landscape. This gives that water more time to soak into the soil, which ultimately keeps plants green and lush even during periods of drought and reduces effects of floods by slowing flow velocity.

Beaver ponds and wetlands also create natural fire breaks. This desirable effect is more important now than ever, as climate change promises more hot summers and dry winters.

As drought conditions continue to worsen in southern Oregon, streams and creeks like Bear Creek are becoming more and more stressed from unprecedented high temperatures and low precipitation. Healthy riparian habitats provide safety from wildfires, prolific wildlife habitat and natural filters for our water. They filter out pollutants such as heavy metals and pesticides by trapping these pollutants as they move through the soil before they reach the channel. As development in the urban areas of the Rogue Valley continues to increase, we should think about how our riparian corridors are affected by urban encroachment and climate change.

Our waterways and the vegetation that makes up the riparian corridors around them need increased protections now more than ever. Rogue Riverkeeper is advocating that stronger setback requirements be added to municipal ordinances to protect these important ecosystems that provide habitat for helpful wildlife like beavers by protecting them from urban encroachment. Rogue Riverkeeper plans to combat the effects of climate change on our watershed by advocating for updated municipal ordinances that govern riparian area setback and promoting the recovery of keystone aquatic species like beaver and salmon populations in southern Oregon. These special animals provide a much-needed service for our waterways by contributing to aquatic habitat development and water retention.

This Earth Day we hope you’ll join Rogue Riverkeeper in doing our part to keep Bear Creek clean by participating in the Bear Creek Stewardship Day from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, April 23. Rogue Riverkeeper is sponsoring a cleanup event at Coyote Trails Nature Center, but there are several other locations on Bear Creek in Ashland, Talent, Phoenix, Medford, and Central Point where you may volunteer as well.

To register, please visit the Bear Creek Stewards Volunteer Registration Page.

Emily Bowes is the conservation director for Rogue Riverkeeper.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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