A New Partnership: NASA and Researchers Study the Impact of Beavers in Idaho

A partnership between NASA and researchers is underway to measure the impact of beavers reintroduced to landscapes in Idaho. Beavers are known as powerful ecosystem engineers, as they create new habitats by slowing water flow and reducing flooding, while also increasing biodiversity. In the face of rapid climate change, beavers are especially important, as they produce wetter and more resilient habitats, even in the presence of wildfires.

NASA’s Ecological Conservation Program is interested in utilizing satellite Earth observations for natural resource management. They are working with Jodi Brandt, a professor at Boise State University, to track the transformation of Idaho’s landscape after reintroducing beavers. Satellite images have already shown that areas with reintroduced beavers are greener and have more vegetation compared to areas without them.

Beavers have a significant impact on water flow. By building dams, they slow down water, which allows sediment to be stored, water to infiltrate into aquifers, riparian vegetation to establish, habitat to be created, and carbon to be stored. In the arid state of Idaho, where most of the water comes from snowmelt in the mountains, slowing down water is beneficial as it creates new habitats, such as marshlands and flooded pastures, and ensures streams continue flowing later and deeper into the year. This benefits numerous species, including fish, birds, and ungulates.

While there is ongoing research to understand the average effect of beavers on vegetation and other broad data-driven conclusions in Idaho, the transformation of streams by beavers has already been observed. For example, after restoration work was done in the Yankee Fork, a tributary of the Salmon River, beavers returned naturally and helped maintain the restoration, increasing vegetation and reconnecting the river to the floodplain.

Scientists have also found that beavers increase biodiversity and wetlands. Research conducted in the Adirondacks in New York showed that the presence of beavers boosted plant diversity by one-third. Despite some considering beavers as pests due to the potential flooding of infrastructure and crops caused by their dams, experts believe that the ecosystem services provided by beaver wetlands outweigh any potential negatives.

The population of North American beavers has recovered to approximately 15 million after decades of decline. However, this is still far from their pre-European population. NASA’s involvement in the project has brought new data to the ongoing initiatives studying the impact of beavers in Idaho.