Environmentalists say restoring thousands of beavers to southern Utah's Escalante River Basin could pour millions of dollars into the local economy by storing water for late-season irrigation, cutting sedimentation in a reservoir and improving hunting and fishing.They will take their case to the ranchers, residents and local officials this week, bearing a report that the Grand Canyon Trust commissioned from economists at the Oregon-based firm ECONorthwest. It estimates that the watershed fed by Boulder Mountain and draining into Lake Powell could support 9,000 beavers, and that they would be a boon both to agriculture and the tourism industry growing around Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.For instance, beaver dams reduce sedimentation of the kind that caused irrigators to spend about $13 million restoring capacity at Wide Hollow Reservoir, ECONorthwest economist Mark Buckley said. Delayed seasonal flows keep water in the system for summer irrigation water that might otherwise gush into Lake Powell early on. And wetland habitats created by beavers improve hunting and trout fishing opportunities."You can pretty quickly get into the hundreds of millions of dollars of value per year," Buckley said.Beavers still exist in the watershed, but far below the numbers envisioned by the Grand Canyon Trust, said Teresa Griffin, southern region wildlife manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. It's unclear how many exist, though, because the state hasn't conducted a thorough count in about 30 years.The state's beaver management plan targets certain streams for population restoration, including some tributaries of the Escalante. Wild Utah Project, in concert with the Grand Canyon Trust, is trying to convince southern Utahns that this restoration is in their interest, Project Director Jim Catlin said. Only one in 10 southern Utah streams that should have beavers currently does, he said, partly because people are used to viewing them as a nuisance and trapping them.A traditional view in rural areas holds that beavers impound waters that otherwise would go to farms, he said, when in fact they're retaining water that recharges aquifers and evens out seasonal flows."They bring back the kind of riparian habitat that's good for wildlife and good for ranching," Catlin said.Griffin said people sometimes call asking DWR to remove beavers that topple trees along irrigation ditches or in backyards. Escalante Mayor Jerry Taylor said he's curious about the prospects, but not ready to endorse it until he hears more and talks to residents.Water is serious business in the small town. Taylor said his government just spent $4.4 million replacing its water system pipe from springs that supply it. He's unsure what role beavers may play in supplying residents and farms."It's interesting that they want to bring the beaver back," he said. "Maybe it's a good thing."The study projects up to 181,000 acres of wetlands added through full beaver restoration, and up to 303,000 acres of riparian habitat for fish and wildlife.If the state does boost beaver numbers in the watershed, it may do so by transplanting some from areas where they're unwanted, or by restricting trapping on certain streams for a few years.Keeping beavers from damaging irrigation ditches, culverts and other resources is simple but does take some time and money for installing deterrents, said Jeremy Christensen, wildlife associate for the Grand Canyon Trust.
An ECONorthwest economist will present findings on the potential value of beavers in the Escalante River watershed: