The first time I saw a beaver on the Jordan River, I briefly mistook it for a Labrador Retriever swimming for the bank. Beavers are, in fact, the second largest rodent in the world, and they can weigh up to 110 pounds (although most are between 35-65 pounds). With delightful chunky bodies, small wide-set eyes, and the classic flat tail, beavers are one of my favorite mammals to spot along the river. They are also tantalizingly difficult to find, because they are mainly active at night.
If you have walked along the Jordan River Trail, you may have noticed a lack of beaver dams and lodges in the water. Our river is too deep and fast-moving for beavers to build these iconic log structures. Instead, they live in burrows that they have excavated out of the river bank. It is rare, but beavers along the Jordan River may flood small sections of the river bank immediately surrounding their burrow.
Beavers eat tree bark, buds, and stems, as well as other soft plant food like grasses and roots. Their eating habits are actually the main reason that I am interested in beavers.
As the Director of Conservation at Tracy Aviary, I spend my days studying our local bird populations and figuring out ways to protect and conserve them. Beavers – with their tendency to munch on trees – have created an interesting challenge to the birds of the Jordan River.
For thousands of years, both migratory and resident birds have relied on the food, shelter, and nesting opportunities along the Jordan River. Water from the river supported rich stands of trees and other vegetation in an otherwise arid landscape, making the river corridor a hot spot for bird activity.
But since Mormon pioneers settled the valley in the mid-1800s, the river has been drastically altered by decades of channelization, development, urban and agricultural runoff, the loss of native trees, and the spread of exotic plants. The river today looks very different from the river 200 years ago, and unfortunately many of these changes have made the river much less hospitable to birds.
Luckily, there are groups such as the Jordan River Commission working on restoring and improving the Jordan River. In some cases, these groups are protecting existing trees, and in other cases they are planting new trees and shrubs. This is where the beavers come in: They love to eat soft-wooded trees such as cottonwoods, and will happily eat and kill both recently-planted saplings and large established trees. They actually prefer these native trees over the exotic trees, although they will feed on both.
As frustrating as this might be for the folks planting the trees, I don’t blame the beavers. They’ve been living in the Jordan River long before we settled and developed the Salt Lake Valley. They’re just being beavers! They can’t help it if the best-tasting trees are the native ones that we’re desperately trying to keep and restore along the river corridor to provide habitat for the birds.
With this in mind, a team of scientists and educators at Tracy Aviary have started working on this problem. We are designing a project to minimize beaver damage and preserve trees for the sake of the birds, without needing to remove beavers from the landscape.
We will rely on volunteers (citizen scientists) from the community to document and monitor beaver damage that they observe along the Jordan River Trail, and we will deploy teams of people to “wrap” especially vulnerable trees to protect them from beavers. More information can be found at tracyaviaryconservation.org/beaver
Keep an eye out for the start of this project in early 2021. In the meantime, see if you can spot a beaver on the river!
Originally from Lawrence, Kansas, Cooper Farr has worked as the director of Conservation at Tracy Aviary for 5 years.