Skip to main content

South Valley Journal

Have you seen this tree? If so, call the Beaver Hotline

Apr 30, 2022 11:45AM ● By Deb Hafner

Frances Ngo, a biologist with Tracy Aviary, shows Millcreek District 1 Councilmember Silvia Catten what to look for when searching for beaver-chewed trees along the Jordan River. (Deb Hafner/City Journals)

By Deb Hafner | [email protected]

“Have you seen this along the Jordan River? ¿Ha visto esto al lado del Río Jordan,” asks a chalk-drawn parody of a wanted poster, with arrows pointing to a whittled, carved-out tree trunk.

These wanted posters aren’t meant  to apprehend a fugitive, and the suspect at large is not going to face criminal charges. Instead, biologists with Tracy Aviary’s Birds and Beavers program are asking trail users along the Jordan River to help collect data that will be used to make connections between beaver activity and bird habitats.

If a trail user spots a nibbled, chewed, or chomped tree, known as beaver gnawing traces, they are asked to take a photo, note the location and text it to the aptly-named Beaver Hotline. Trail users can find examples of gnawing traces on the Birds and Beavers website, along with an interactive map pinpointing beaver activity.

Birds and Beavers is a bilingual community science project that launched in April 2021 and is headquartered at Tracy Aviary’s Jordan River Nature Center. “Some families who live close to or along the river speak Spanish, and we want to be an inclusive project that motivates residents to go outside and walk the trails and look for beaver activity,” says Frances Ngo, the lead conservation outreach biologist on the project. 

Cities like West Valley City, with an approximate 38% Latino population, inhabit a large stretch along the Jordan River. According to experts, Latino communities in urban areas are often underserved when it comes to environmental education and outreach. Ngo hopes Birds and Beavers will encourage all residents to participate in outdoor activities and wildlife preservation.

The trail user photo project and resulting data is part of the three phases of the program that include identifying beaver activity, monitoring beaver activity, and educating the public and government agencies with the findings.

To date, trail users have submitted photos of beaver gnawing traces from as far south as Spanish Fork to just above West 2300 North Street in North Salt Lake City.

“We are primarily interested in how beaver activity interplays with bird habitat,” Ngo said. “Beavers are a native species prevalent along the Jordan River. They are known as ecosystem engineers because they can alter habitats by creating lush ponds, generating deadfall that attracts bugs, which in turn attracts birds, and facilitating the return of other species to an ecosystem.”

Over 200 species of birds, including migratory birds, call the Jordan River home. Protecting trees or leaving fallen trees in certain areas is important for resident birds as they provide places to hunt and nest and insects to eat.  Ngo and her colleagues are using the Beaver Hotline photos to assess which trees need to be protected or monitored.

Beavers eat tree bark and the softer growing tissue under the bark, called cambium, and they prefer soft-wooded trees like native cottonwoods. A beaver can gnaw the entire circumference of a tree, called girdling, leaving an hour-glass shaped trunk with visible teeth marks. 

Once a tree has been girdled, it is in danger of dying because it cannot get the nutrients it needs through its narrowed trunk. Some larger cottonwoods need to be protected from too much beaver munching, so Ngo and her colleagues and volunteers have been wrapping endangered trees with chicken wire to encourage the beavers to feast on other species of trees, like the invasive Russian olive tree.

Ngo hopes to install motion-activated cameras in the future to continue monitoring beaver activity and to specifically see how long beavers dine at each tree before moving on to a new one. This data will inform city and county management efforts so they don’t remove dead trees and debris, called snags, too soon. “If we see perching, nesting or decomposers occupying areas, we don’t want to see the removal of snags,” Ngo said, adding, “Flickers, for example, create nests in dead trees, and if we remove those dead trees, we remove potential bird habitats.”

One sunny morning in early April, Ngo, with binoculars hanging around her neck, and Millcreek District 1 Councilmember Silvia Catten, set off from the General Holm parking onto the Jordan River Trail to look for new beaver activity.

Almost immediately, Ngo spotted a muskrat lounging on a log in the river. American coots, a duck-like bird that is not a duck, paddled down the river in pursuit of aquatic vegetation. “Did you hear that?” asked Ngo, excitedly. “That is an American kingfisher.” In a few more steps, Catten spotted tear-drop shapes hanging from branches high in a cottonwood tree. “Those are oriole nests,” informed Ngo, “they build new ones every year.”  Excitedly, the pair continued south on the trail. “I bet most people don’t know about the myriad species of birds that live on or around the river, or that there is a population of beavers right through the middle of the valley,” said Catten.

Catten, who is also a vice chair on the Jordan River Commission, has taken an interest in the conservation and protection of the Jordan River “as a place for wildlife, open space, recreation and beauty in our urban landscape.” Millcreek, 16 other cities and two counties are members of the Jordan River Commission, which helps fund conservation, planning, education, and recreational efforts around and on the river. A partial grant from the Jordan River Commission is helping to support the Birds and Beavers program.

“Millcreek is planning to complete a trail—a loop—on the east side of the water that connects to the existing Jordan River Trail,” Catten said, adding that “while a lot of the work for Millcreek’s portion was completed last year, we are awaiting funding to finish the loop access to our portion. We’re hopeful it will be complete within the next few years.”

Ngo said that as part of the education phase of the program, they will offer guided and self-guided beaver tours and install interpretative signage along the trails.

Catten and Ngo headed south where the meandering trail led them to a small meadow, in the middle of which stood a large cottonwood tree with recent beaver chew marks.  To the left was another dined-upon tree, and to the right an abandoned dinner spot. Across the river were more trees with beaver gnawing traces. 

While Millcreek touches a small portion of the Jordan River, cities with larger portions of the river have led conservation efforts, and according to Catten, “When we became a city we wanted to follow suit and be good stewards, too. We have a relatively small portion of the river and we are so lucky to have bordering municipalities that manage their portion of the river so well, like Murray. Our portion has benefited from that for sure. Our goal is to be a vested partner with the agencies, like the Jordan River Commission, who take prudent care to plan for the conservation of the river as a whole. It’s our job to help as we can, even if it’s just for our tiny portion.”

As for the Birds and Beavers program, Catten believes “the knowledge gained from programs like this one does have a wider reach as I see it—the trees, plants, and weed management plans affect the wildlife, so as far as what might guide future plans for conservation, understanding the broader ecosystem is always helpful.”

Ngo and Catten took a photo of the beaver gnawing trace they discovered and sent it to the Beaver Hotline for Ngo to plot on the map.

If you see beaver activity along the Jordan River, take a photo and text it to the Beaver Hotline at 801-381-6349. You can visit the Jordan River Nature Center at 1125 W. 3300 South at the James Madison Oxbow Park. The Birds and Beavers website can be found at www.tracyaviaryconservation.org/birdsbeavers.