Ecosystem pioneers: beaver dispersal and settlement site selection in the context of habitat restoration
Ritter, Torrey Daniel
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The activities of beavers (Castor canadensis) provide a variety of benefits to stream systems by capturing and storing water and sediment, expanding riparian areas, and increasing habitat heterogeneity. Understandably, land and wildlife managers are interested in using beavers as a habitat restoration tool. However, streams targeted for restoration are often degraded and lack recent beaver activity, and therefore represent suboptimal habitat. The habitat selection process for beavers in suboptimal and unmodified habitats provides a natural analogue to beaver restoration, but the process is not well-understood. I radio-marked juvenile beavers and conducted beaver-use surveys in tributary streams of the Gallatin and Madison River drainages in southwest Montana to investigate dispersal, survival, and settlement site selection by beavers colonizing novel areas. My objective was to study beaver ecology in the context of beaver restoration to improve identification of suitable project locations. Beaver colony densities in the study area were low or average, though colony densities in suitable habitat were generally high. There was evidence of delayed dispersal, and as the density of active beaver colonies increased the probability of dispersal decreased. Radio-marked beavers that dispersed settled quickly and dispersal distances were highly variable. Most beavers settled in active colonies or other beaver-modified habitats, and colonization of unmodified stream segments was rare. My top habitat selection models indicated new settlement sites were located in stream segments characterized by low gradients, dense woody riparian vegetation close to the stream, and relatively narrow stream channels. Stream channels at new settlement sites were more variable both in cross-sectional and longitudinal depth and were more heavily influenced by secondary channels than unsettled sites. My results suggest beavers select for pre-engineered habitat over unoccupied stream segments, and in novel areas habitat conditions that facilitate stable dam construction appear most important. When choosing project locations, restoration practitioners should consider local beaver colony locations and densities to assess the potential for dispersers to reach the restoration site. Stream segments that provide dam resiliency and hiding cover should be targeted for initial restoration efforts, and pre-engineering of habitat prior to beaver occupancy may increase the probability of successful colony establishment.