Tue. Oct 3rd, 2023
NASA and Researchers Team Up to Study the Impact of Beavers on Idaho Landscapes

A new partnership between NASA and researchers is focusing on measuring the impact of beavers reintroduced to landscapes in Idaho. Beavers are known as one of the most powerful ecosystem engineers globally, as they can create new habitats by slowing water flow and reducing flooding while boosting biodiversity. This makes them particularly important in the face of rapid climate change, as their activities contribute to the creation of wetter and more resilient habitats, even in areas affected by wildfires.

NASA is interested in leveraging satellite Earth observations for natural resource management, according to a representative of the space agency’s Ecological Conservation Program. The collaboration aims to better understand the effects of rewilding for ecosystem restoration using satellite research. Cynthia Schmidt, associate program manager for the NASA Ecological Conservation Program, is working with professor Jodi Brandt from Boise State University to track the rapid transformation of Idaho’s landscape by reintroduced beavers. Satellite images have already demonstrated that areas with reintroduced beavers are greener and have more vegetation compared to areas without them.

Beavers have a significant impact on water flow, unlike any other species apart from humans. Their activities involve building dams, which slow down water, store sediment, and promote water infiltration into aquifers. Additionally, beaver dams facilitate the development of riparian vegetation, create habitats, and store carbon. All of these factors contribute to landscape re-wetting, which is particularly beneficial in arid regions like Idaho, where much of the water comes from snowmelt in the mountains. Slowing down the water flow creates new habitats, sustains streams and wetlands, and supports various species.

While researchers are still working on comprehensive analyses of beavers’ impact in Idaho, they have observed the transformation of several streams by beavers. Restoration work in degraded areas, such as the Yankee Fork tributary of the Salmon River, led to the natural return of beavers, ultimately contributing to increased vegetation and the reconnection of the river to the floodplain. Beavers have been shown to increase biodiversity and promote the diversity of plants in wetland areas. Despite this, beavers have traditionally been considered pests and have been subject to extermination efforts due to the potential flooding of infrastructure and crops caused by their dams.

Experts highlight that the ecosystem services provided by beaver wetlands far outweigh any potential negatives associated with flooding. Beaver activity is considered one of the most cost-effective methods for creating functional wetland systems, with significant benefits for the environment. Although the North American beaver population has made a comeback over the years, it still stands at around 15 million, a fraction of its pre-European population size. The partnership between NASA and researchers will provide valuable insights into the transformative power of beavers on landscapes and their contributions to habitat restoration and climate resilience.