Remediating Flooding and Blocked Culverts in Illinois
If you are experiencing flooding problems or blocked road culverts and drains caused by beavers in Illinois, Jeff Boland-Prom of Midwest Beaver Management received training from the Beaver Institute as a Beaver Wetland Professional, and is a member in good standing in the Beaver Institute's International BeaverCorps Association.
We know that in 2015, 1,646 beavers were handled by individuals with Nuisance Wildlife Control Permits. Of those, 84 were relocated, and the rest were killed. In 2018, 1,361 beavers were handled by individuals with Nuisance Wildlife Control Permits. Of those, 41 were relocated, released on site or surrendered to wildlife rehabilitators.
Beavers are also trapped for their fur! Here is some data about the 2019-2020 fur harvest.
Right now, the State of Illinois does not make it easy to relocate beavers. Other states and Native American tribes run successful relocation programs, but the Illinois Department of Natural Resources does not encourage relocation and it is difficult to find appropriate habitats for relocation that will accept beavers. That needs to change. Illinois should use best practices developed by other states to develop its own relocation program and incorporate it into another change that would be extremely beneficial to the state: wetlands reclamation.
Wetlands Are The Answer
Creating wetlands would mean that there would be appropriate habitats for beavers and would also benefit the state environmentally, economically, and from a tourism perspective.
Illinois used to be a quarter wetlands before European trappers arrived and trapped all the beavers. Much of the wetlands in the state were located in the flat northeast corner where glaciers dominated. The beavers kept the ground nice and soggy because they kept rivers connected to their floodplains. Rivers looked completely different; they meandered, looped around, and braided. Once the beavers were gone, the rivers became cut off from their floodplains. Even after the beavers were gone, the land stayed wet, so settlers dug drainage ditches and laid drainage tiles (underground pipes) to quickly and efficiently move water off the land into local streams and rivers. Soon much of the Illinois landscape—once peppered with depressions that retained water—was dry for farming and other development.
Farmers settled in Illinois and decided they would build levees to pump the remaining water off of their fields. The rivers became much more constrained, moved faster, and caused more erosion. The farmers farmed the soil until it became poor, and then the farmers had to start adding fertilizers to the soil so that food would grow—fertilizers that contain the nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium
The fertilizers wash into the rivers in Illinois--the Illinois River, the Kankakee River, and the Sangamon River, to name a few. Those rivers are tributaries of the Mississippi River. And because the rivers move so quickly now, and because there aren’t enough wetlands, there’s no chance for the fertilizers to be filtered out and purified by wetlands.
Then the Mississippi River carries all of those fertilizers into the Gulf of Mexico. And the nutrients in the fertilizers cause large algae blooms to develop, depleting the dissolved oxygen in the area and causing a giant dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where nothing can live. The dead zone threatens seafood production, recreation, and marine life. Which is bad.
The agricultural states whose rivers feed into the Mississippi River know this is an enormous problem. The Illinois Department of Agriculture releases a Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy biennial report to discuss efforts to reduce the amount of fertilizer that is entering our rivers. Strategies discussed in the 2019 report include growing cover crops, reducing the amount of fertilizer, and “constructed” wetlands--but the number of acres under “constructed” wetlands is relatively very low. There are a number of federal and state programs aimed at helping farmers reduce the amount of fertilizer entering our rivers. But there’s a cutting edge strategy that is being adopted out west to solve water quality problems that isn’t mentioned in the 2019 report. And that strategy is called “low-tech, process-based restoration of riverscapes.”
Low-tech process-based restoration is the practice of using simple, low unit-cost, structural additions (e.g. wood and beaver dams) to riverscapes to mimic functions and promote specific processes; and then letting the system do the work, which defers critical decision making to riverscapes and beaver. Practitioners find or create a location along a degraded creek, stream, or smaller river that would be a suitable habitat for beavers, install hand-built, natural materials, non-engineered, with short-term design life spans, relocate beavers to that location, and let the beavers work their wetlands-creating and water-purifying magic. It costs a fraction of conventional restoration. The resultant wetlands prevent flooding, improve water quality, and absorb the nutrients, preventing them from entering the river system. So farmers could reclaim wetlands along their waterways, and it would go a long, long way toward addressing the problem of agricultural runoff creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.