Three beavers were rescued the day after the spill first was noticed on March 18. Three more were rescued eight days later. Five of the six, all of whom are believed to make up an extended family, were released Tuesday. One female had to have a toe amputated and will join the others when it has healed.
Watching the beavers take to the water was a bittersweet moment for DaLyn Erickson.
As director of the of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah, she was there when each of the paddle-tailed mammals arrived reeking of diesel fuel. She and volunteers spent the next five months working around the clock with the beavers.
There were periods of trepidation, fleeting moments of success, lots of baths and the never-ending hunt for fresh aspen to feed the buck-toothed creatures.
"It has been a roller-coaster ride of emotions," Erickson said. "We came in every morning holding our breath while we peeked in and hoped they were still alive. It was hard not knowing what we would see or what new problems may have come up. We celebrated the tiniest bit of progress."
Releasing the beavers back into the wild was the goal from the moment each animal arrived. For them all to be in a condition to be released five months later is an accomplishment for the staff.
"They knew what was going on, " Child said. "They were trying to get to the willows when we carried them in the cages."
Four of the five animals were placed in two special boxes built to resemble a beaver lodge. The fifth beaver, "Momma," was released later in another box above the pond.
After allowing them to get comfortable in the boxes, volunteers who have been caring for the beavers since the spill removed a wooden plank, enabling them to access the pond underwater via a pipe. The beavers soon made their way out of the pipes and swam free for the first time since March.
"I'm hoping they can do great things here," Erickson said. "It sure is beautiful."
The area is not currently inhabited by beavers but there are some old dams higher in the creek, said Kent Sorenson, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources habitat manager.
The state wildlife agency has been looking for a suitable location for a release since the beavers arrived at the center, said Phil Douglass, a conservation outreach officer with the Division of Wildlife Resources.
"They were in pretty rough shape when we took them in to the center, but they are very good at rehabilitating wildlife and we expected that they would survive," Douglass said. "We identified an area we feel will be a great habitat for the beavers."
Beavers, Douglass said, are great habitat creators and will be a welcome addition to the river drainage in the Uintas where they were released.
In addition to falling prey to natural predators, the animals could be legally trapped and their skins sold.
"That is something we cannot change," Erickson said. "We understand that the Forest Service was looking to get beavers in the area to help with erosion and benefit the ecosystem. Hopefully, people are becoming more aware of the benefits of beavers."
Officials asked that the general location of the release area not be revealed in an effort to protect the animals from people trying to observe them and possibly trap them.
The release of the beavers the sixth animal is expected to be released in the same area in about two weeks comes as the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah comes off its busiest season since it opened in 2009.
More than 100 other individual animals, ranging from hummingbirds, eagles, rabbits and squirrels also have been at the center this year, but it was the beavers hogging up most of the volunteer time.
"They certainly took a bite out of our already limited financial resources," she said. "But it was worth it."
Erickson was so busy with the Willard Bay beavers that the organization's annual fundraiser was called off. Chevron contributed $35,000 to the center to help with costs of caring for the animals and for the expected loss of the cancelled fundraiser.
Donate to center
O The beavers are back in the wild, but the cost of caring for them for five months has taken a bite out of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah's bank account. Find out how you can help the facility recoup the cost of caring for the animals. > wrcnu.org
Beavers on video
O See a video of beavers in Utah. > bit.ly/utahbeavers
Utah beavers on video
See a video of beavers in Utah at http://youtu.be/cMhaYRNLTno