Becoming the Beaver

How one rancher’s unconventional approach is bringing water back to an arid landscape.

The sweet peas are popping up in north Phillips County, enjoying the cool Montana spring before the heat of summer puts them to rest for another year. Birds chirp. The breeze is cool, the air fresh. And in the mind of Brian Fox, the gears are turning. Will the ranch improvements he’s made in the last year equate to the improvements he’s after? They were unconventional, he’ll give it that, but also natural in a way that we may be just starting to appreciate.

Fox has found himself at the forefront of a unique conservation effort aimed at restoring water levels on his ranch. Upon purchasing a portion of the property in 2012, inspection the next spring indicated he had a problem: beavers. With damage already evident on trees, Fox hopped quickly into action calling a local trapper.

Traps were set. Beavers were eliminated. Peace was restored. Or was it?

As the year progressed, Fox observed an ongoing problem of water scarcity exacerbated on the property. A quick trip upstream told the story as to why. While beaver trapping activities had removed some of the rodents on his property, others had simply moved to less controversial territory.

“The beavers that we trapped out, they migrated further upstream and they just shut the water off to my whole property right then,” said Fox, hands on his hips looking towards the creek. The spicket had been turned off.

What could be done? A well was drilled, accommodating the most immediate need for livestock water while the rest of the pasture showed the telltale signs of water deprivation. A discussion with local Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) personnel brought up the possible, recently trending solution of beaver dam analogs (BDAs). These artificial structures replicate the functions of natural beaver dams, slowing the flow of water. By strategically placing these structures along the existing creek bed, Fox hopes to hold back some of the water that would otherwise flow quickly downstream.

It’s interesting work, becoming the beaver. It’s the sort of task where you’re equal parts engineer and six-year-old all the while wondering if you’re amazingly resourceful or ludicrously wandering through your day. Wherever that pendulum swings, Fox has not been alone in their installation. In a work day dedicated to BDA construction, over 30 volunteers showed up including team members from the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance (RSA), Pheasants Forever (PF), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Montana Conservation Corps, and Wild Rockies Field Institute. A testament to collaborative conservation and on-the-ground education, it emphasized that there is space for a multitude of solutions when it comes to ranch sustainability.

That collaboration has made itself evident as Fox continues to work with RSA, PF, TNC, and NRCS to enhance his property. Wildlife-friendly fencing has been implemented to ease migration along the Woody Island Corridor, one the largest intact antelope migration corridors in North America. Now leaning into BDAs as a means of water retention, the property has seen improvements beyond water availability for livestock. Habitat has improved for a nearby sage-grouse lek, also known as the “strutting ground” for breeding activities of the near-threatened bird.

What started as a setback for Fox has transformed into an opportunity for innovation and collaboration. His unwavering determination to find solutions has not only benefited his own ranch but has also sparked conversations and encouraged others in the community to rethink their approach to land management and conservation. His stellar attitude and proactive efforts serve as a reminder that even in the face of adversity, positive change is possible and that by working together, we can create a brighter, more sustainable future for all.


Anne Johnson, DVM 
The First State Bank of Malta