Investigation continues into loss of Mill Creek beaver dams
by Rose Egelhoff
The Times-Independent
Sep 07, 2017 | 4488 views | 0 0 comments | 152 152 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Grand Canyon Trust-Utah Forest Program Director Mary O’Brien surveys a large beaver dam in Mill Creek that was destroyed by flooding, possibly after being vandalized. 			      Photo by Rose Egelhoff
Grand Canyon Trust-Utah Forest Program Director Mary O’Brien surveys a large beaver dam in Mill Creek that was destroyed by flooding, possibly after being vandalized. Photo by Rose Egelhoff
If you ask Sara Melnicoff of Moab Solutions, part of the Mill Creek Partnership, Mill Creek had 11 or more beaver dams this spring.

After July’s monsoon rains, every dam was gone.

Though this can be a natural process, Melnicoff and others suspect vandalism was a factor. However, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) is leaning against filing charges in the case, according to DWR Lieutenant Ben Wolford, the lead investigator on the case.

Melnicoff first noticed the damage mid-July, before the heavy rains of July 24 and 25 caused flooding in the creek. She contacted Mary O’Brien of the Grand Canyon Trust, who had previously participated in writing Utah’s beaver management plan. O’Brien took photographs of the dams, some of which had been notched or had sticks pulled out of them.

“The dams had been compromised a few days before the flooding,” O’Brien said. “I have a whole series of photos that I documented for BLM of all 11 dams and each one has a notch cut out of the center. That’s all that it takes [to compromise the dam].”

Eyewitness accounts support the claim that vandalism was involved. Maria Roberts, a Forest Service employee, was hiking with friends in mid-July when she saw a man pulling sticks out of the dams.

“I saw a guy, looked like he was pulling branches apart from the beaver dam. I figured he was supposed to be there, like he was working,” Roberts said.

Another witness took photos of the man.

The day before the dams were compromised, Melnicoff said, she received an email from an unknown address concerned that the beavers were causing E. coli bacteria in town.

O’Brien said that in her experience, beavers are not known to cause E. coli but do benefit the ecosystems they inhabit.

“When they come up streams and have to build dams to get two and a half feet [of water to build their lodges], there is then a whole cascade of effects that happen,” O’Brien said. “Streams are often incised from grazing, from long-ago blow-outs of cattle ponds, from floods and so on and really the only thing that can restore that stream is basically woody debris … beaver are the chief engineers that do that.”

O’Brien said that beaver dams create habitat for other animals as well.

“When a beaver comes in and starts making a pond, that opens that up and now ducks come and shorebirds come and they drown the trees, which makes them perfect for cavity nesting birds, which makes it perfect for secondary cavity nesters who use the holes of cavity nesters,” O’Brien said. “[The] water behind the pond is a great nursery for fish. And then of course otter can come into the system because there’s fish. And muskrats are there. And water voles are there, so one thing that the beavers do is make the system far more complex. Without beaver, in a lot of, say, your mountains here, it’s a just strip of water coming through and there’s trees on either side.”

Arne Hultquist, director of the Moab Area Watershed Partnership, agreed that beavers are not the cause of E. coli in Mill Creek.

“If I was having problems with beavers and E. coli, I would be seeing it at that site [above the Power Dam] and I don’t see it at that site. I see it down in town,” said Hulquist, who conducts water quality tests at various points around Moab.

The DWR is still actively investigating the incident, according to Wolford.

“We are still investigating [and] we have one final loose end to tie up, but it does not look as if charges will be filed,” Wolford said.

The DWR is looking into the incident based on the legal definition of wildlife crime, Wolford told The Times-Independent.

“There’s not really a crime for breaching a dam,” Wolford said. “The crime comes after, if it’s either displaced beaver or killed beaver. If there’s an actual beaver that’s dead in the area, that’s where the actual crime starts to come into play.”

Wolford added that the dams might have already been abandoned.

“It’s possible that they were [abandoned to start with] because if the beaver were there, those dams would be built back up really fast,” Wolford said. “[It] usually only takes them a night to do it, especially the ones that tend to look like they were more man-made breached. They were small enough breaches that the beaver would have been back in immediately. The ones that are bigger breaches, those ones definitely look like flooding issues. As wildlife, we like beaver. They do a lot of good to the ecosystem and help out things quite a bit.”

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