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A Hidden Family Of Beavers Is Helping Dozens Of Species Thrive In East Boise

A pond is in the foreground, near an apartment complex. Several plants grow in and near the pond.
Lindsey Schmidt
Boise State Public Radio
This peaceful pond was created by beavers in the shadow of a large apartment complex. The beaver lodge is on the left. The dam in the middle is just one of a series of dams built by the beavers.

I’m standing not far from Marianne Williams Park in Boise looking out over a small pond surrounded by reeds and rushes. In the middle is a rather drab pile of sticks and mud.

“All right, what are we looking at?” I ask.

Lindsey Schmidt
It's not pretty, but it's home. This rather haphazard-looking heap of mud, rocks, sticks, and reeds is actually a very sophisticated beaver lodge.

“Well, we are right here by the [Boise] Greenbelt and we are looking at a beaver dam," said Steve Burns, who was the head of Zoo Boise for 20 years. "And right next to it is a beaver lodge. And we can’t be, what, more than 25 feet off the Greenbelt?”

Four years after he left the Zoo, Burns has a new passion — helping people find nature and learn how to conserve it.

While the scene in front of me is quite pretty, I’m not seeing a beaver.

“Now, is there a beaver in the beaver house?” I ask.

Burns assures me there really is a beaver in there.

“The other night I came out here and the beaver was sitting right there and kind of looked at me and then had this look like, 'well time to go to work,' and dove in and off he swam. Or her. I’m not sure which one,” Burns laughs.

In April, Burns co-founded a new nonprofit called Wildlife Conservation Enterprises with Liz Littman, who also worked at Zoo Boise. They take people on “Backyard Safaris” which are sort of super-charged nature walks.

They’re taking me on their safari called “A Dam Good Time,” which focuses primarily on the dams that beavers have built here because Burns said we are unlikely to see the animals themselves.

Lindsey Schmidt
This beaver-made series of dams is quite extensive, creating ponds and streams like this one.

“You get to see the impacts of a beaver and beavers are the species that have the most impact on nature other than us. And so when they build their dam, it creates this amazing ecosystem and that’s what we’re going to explore on this tour, not only the physical effects, but all of the other species that benefit when they’ve built a dam,” Burns said.

They’ve built a series of dams that are tucked between a very busy road and a lot of human activity.

“Now if I had a throwing arm, I could toss a baseball and hit a giant apartment building,” I point out. “These guys are awfully close to people.”

Burns said he wants people to know that nature is in our own backyards.

“I mean, yes, you could go out into the mountains or to the deserts of Idaho and find some great nature, but there’s lots of nature right here and it’s along the Greenbelt, it’s in the parks, it’s in the [Boise] Foothills and you can see it if you’re just paying attention and you know what you’re looking for and that’s what we’re hoping to help people see the nature that’s right before their eyes.”

Not just see nature in their own backyards, but also learn how that nature creates and supports ecosystems, like the one we’re standing by. It includes a series of beaver dams and ponds along a paved pathway.

Lindsey Schmidt
The beavers spent a lot of time and effort on this dam and the others in their ecosystem. Their rather large teeth never stop growing.

This tour is not a boring lecture. Burns and Littman laugh and tell jokes with an easy banter that includes information about beavers.

“This is how you push me in, this is how this works, I can tell,” I tell Burns.

“The first time we push you in,” jokes Burns.

Wait, the first time?

“So there you’re seeing the front side of the beaver dam right there and there you’re seeing the other half of the beaver lodge right in front of us,” Burns continues.

“I see it, oh my gosh, that’s amazing! I mean if I fell over, I could reach out and touch the beaver house,” I realize.

“Just about, yeah,” says Burns.

We continue our walk downstream from the beaver dam and turn a corner. A fuzzy yellow and brown baby mallard is trying to catch his dinner on the bottom of a small, still pool of water. A second duckling and a momma duck paddle into view.

“Oh hi! Hello. Oh, little babies,” I whisper, entranced. “Those are baby ducks!”

Lindsey Schmidt
This adorable baby mallard duckling and its mother have the beavers to thank for this secluded, peaceful dining spot.

Littman walks over as I continue to exclaim about the ducks.

"We don’t always pay attention to the smaller or less noticeable creatures but there’s a lot here and there’s a lot to love and a lot to appreciate."
Liz Littman, Co-Founder of “Backyard Safaris”

“So we’re here in Golda Harris Nature Preserve, which is this little hidden gem in the Boise Parks system, it’s new," Littman said. "I think after the last year, everybody loved getting outside and a lot of what we want to do is show people these hidden gems.

"Maybe often we’re looking for the bald eagles or the pronghorns or the coyotes in our backyard, but we don’t always pay attention to the smaller or less noticeable creatures but there’s a lot here and there’s a lot to love and a lot to appreciate and these tours can teach people that and and show people how much Boise has to offer but hopefully inspire and empower people to do more to protect the wildlife and our natural world.”

While she talks, I’m keeping one eye on the ducks as they eat and preen in front of us.

Lindsey Schmidt
This hidden oasis is in the new Golda Harris Nature Preserve in Boise.

“I have to say, there’s nothing like standing and watching baby ducks in a quiet area 'cause we see ducks all the time and geese all the time but you get to sit back and watch them, you really get an appreciation for them,” I tell Littman.

“And this area is tucked just enough away from the road so that you can hear the blackbirds and it's a nice little respite ... and there’s nothing cuter than baby ducks,” said my fellow mallard fan.

I reluctantly leave the ducks to their dinner and we start walking along the series of ponds the beavers have created. Creatures like the ducks, mammals and even insects have taken advantage of the wetland created by the beavers.

“If you start to think of all of the things that first live in the water, there’s obviously some fish, there’s aquatic insects, all the dragonflies you see cruising around, they spend most of their lives as insects, these little nymphs, and they’ve got to have still water like this that’s clean in order to to be able to survive," Burns said. "You’ve got willows growing up, you’ve got cottonwoods, two of the native trees to Boise and provides places for birds and it provides places for insects, there will be various mammals cruising through here.

"I’m sure at night if you were down here there’d be skunks, raccoons, there’d be a whole variety and then there’s nice little secluded areas, you’ve got ducks in there and other water birds that have this protection because there are foxes down here, there would be coyotes not very far away and it provides them with some places to hide.”

“Just amazing to see what diversity the beavers can create just by building a little dam in this area and offering a little wetland space.”
Liz Littman, co-founder of “Backyard Safaris.”

But not all of those species are welcome. Up and down the series of dams, we have seen more than 50 different plants and Burns says more than half may be invasive — not native to Boise or the U.S.

Lindsey Schmidt
Steve Burns brings along props on his "Backyard Safaris" like this shovel which he uses to show us how far the water from the beaver dam spreads out onto the landscape.

“If it was a little quieter and less windy tonight, we would probably be hearing the bullfrogs," Burns said. "And you think, oh, frogs! Bullfrogs, not native to the state of Idaho. Introduced species and very harmful because you remember Hungry, Hungry Hippo? It’s like Hungry, Hungry Bullfrog because they eat everything. They eat other frogs, they eat eggs, they eat little animals, they eat insects and so they can cause some damage.”

We walk around another corner and I point out to Littman how close the apartment buildings are to all this wildlife.

“Some animals are quite adaptive and they figure out how to avoid us or live quietly with us and be ignored. But we have to learn how to live with wildlife and support them. Live in harmony with them. Learn to appreciate what we have and protect it, conserve it,” Littman says.

Burns agreed and believes that’s part of what “Backyard Safaris” is all about.

“Liz and I have been involved in conservation for a long time and whenever we give a talk to people, we always get the same four word response, ‘I had no idea.’" said Burns. "I had no idea animals were in such bad shape out in the wild. I had no idea that the ecosystems were in the shape they’re in. And it didn’t matter who was in the audience, the level of education, level of income, how old they were, it was always those four words. So we decided to start this Wildlife Conservation Enterprises because we want people to become wildlife conservationists.

“Nature needs more advocates.”
Steve Burns, Co-Founder of “Backyard Safaris”

"And you don’t have to be Jane Goodall to be a wildlife conservationist. You have to know just enough and then pick one piece. You’re not going to save the entire world but we ask people to pick one piece. So we’re bringing people out here and giving them an appreciation of what’s in their backyard. Not just the animals, but the whole ecosystem.”

He paused to glance around at all the beauty around us.

“It’s an amazing, fascinating, complex natural world out there and we just want to continue to introduce more and more people to it.”
Steve Burns, Co-Founder of “Backyard Safaris”

As we wrapped up the safari, I’m amazed at how many plants and birds we found tucked between a busy road and a busy apartment complex, and have a fresh appreciation for how nature can survive — and even thrive — so close to humans.

Lindsey Schmidt
Dozens of species of plants, insects, and animals rely on this beaver-built ecosystem for food, shelter, and survival - a few yards from the more arid Boise Foothills.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio

Samantha Wright is a news reporter and producer for Idaho Matters.