Rewilding beavers with NASA Earth observation systems.
There was a time when beavers were regarded as pests due to their ability to alter the environment in which they lived. Their ability to build dams to impound water can cause tree cutting and flooding, which in some cases can threaten property, agricultural crops or public health and safety. Shockingly, due to decades of fur trapping and extermination in the United States and Canada, beavers almost went extinct.
But over time, researchers and ecologists have found that beavers play an important role in helping to rewild ecosystems and is rewilding beavers with NASA earth observation systems. Beaver dams can slow down water flow which can help prevent flooding and drought conditions. The dams create wetlands which enhance soil quality and encourage the development of plant and animal life. Finally, beaver dams store carbon and reduce the release of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
A collaboration with NASA and Boise State University is looking to quantify how beavers can positively impact local ecosystems and is rewilding beavers with NASA Earth observation systems. The team focuses on Idaho and nearby regions because while wet ecosystems make up only 5% of the landscape, these areas are important for over 90% of species living there during the dry seasons. Between 50 and 75 beaver rewilding projects are taking place in Idaho. These projects include reintroducing the animals in areas where woody materials like cottonwoods and willows are available for dams and building dam-like structures that imitate beaver activity and encourage the animals to take up residency.
When the snow melts in the spring in Idaho, the water flows straight over the land, down the rivers and into the ocean. The beavers will use the streams and build dams across them, which hold water on the land longer. This helps to support more plants and creates habitats for ponds and meadows. Researchers have also found that the dams create more fresh drinking water and better grazing land for cattle, and the landscapes are now more resilient to fire and drought.
NASA uses Earth Observation systems to collect data across large areas of the world and pass over the same areas regularly and across the seasons during the year. NASA’s satellites continually orbit the globe and collect information about the Earth’s oceans, atmosphere and land surfaces. Their satellites can even monitor the activity of life forms, including phytoplankton. This technology allows researchers to efficiently study the effects of beaver dams in Idaho to monitor more areas and quantify the positive changes.
The collaboration with NASA and Boise State University includes updating the existing Beaver Restoration Assessment Tool, which evaluates the potential of a site to support beaver populations and to function as stream conservation and restoration agents, creating two applications using Earth observations to measure beaver rewilding impacts and a smartphone application for comparing photos of field sites. All of the information gathered will help with beaver rewilding programs and will help to measure the effect the beavers are having on specific areas. The smartphone application is part of a citizen science effort that will allow people to monitor beaver activity and submit photos of beavers and beaver dams to a global database.
Since a rewilding program began in 2014, there have been more than 200 beaver dams along Birch Creek near Preston, Idaho, resulting in the stream flowing 40 days longer into the year. The efforts from NASA help to keep costs associated with the monitoring of the streams down and to make data more accessible to more people who are looking to rewild certain areas.
This project and collaboration with NASA is an excellent way to show how technology has advanced and is helping us protect the ecosystems that we depend on as humans and other beings.