This paper reviews the impact native ungulates, primarily elk and moose, and beaver can have on riparian communities in the Western United States. In Yellowstone National Park and in other areas where ungulates are not managed, repeated browsing has reduced tall willow, aspen, and cottonwood communities by approximately 95 percent since the late 1800's. Native ungulates can also severely reduce or eliminate palatable grasses and forbs from herbaceous riparian communities. By eliminating woody vegetation and security cover and by altering plant-species composition, native ungulates can alter bird, mammal, and aquatic communities. They can even negatively affect endangered species like grizzly bears for which riparian areas provide critical habitat. In many respects excessive use by native ungulates is similar to overgrazing by domestic livestock. Beaver is a keystone species that alters the hydrology, energy flow, and nutrient cycling of aquatic systems. Unlike ungulates which tend to degrade riparian habitats, beaver actually create and maintain riparian areas. Beaver dams not only impound water but they also trap sediments that raise the water table and allow the extension of riparian communities into former upland areas. By trapping silt over thousands of years, beaver have actually created many of the West's fertile valleys. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Western streams supported large populations of beaver. During one five-day period in 1825, Peter Skene Ogden's fur brigade trapped 511 beaver. Today, state and federal land-management agencies are using beaver to restore damaged riparian areas. Beaver however, can become a nuisance when they dam irrigation facilities, plug highway culverts, or fell streamside trees valued by landowners.
Kay, Charles E.
"Impact of native ungulates and beaver on riparian communities in the intermountain west,"
Natural Resources and Environmental Issues:
Vol. 1, Article 6.
Available at: http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/nrei/vol1/iss1/6