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Did the Beaver Give the Owyhee its Name?

Updated: Jul 22, 2022

Not exactly, but long story short: yes!

Photo from National Wildlife Federation blog "Beavers, Water and Fire: A New Formula for Success" by Brianna Randall. This particular beaver is not in the Owyhee.

Sounds a bit mythological, right? Beavers in the Owyhee? The Owyhee beaver is indeed present and busy. In case you thought the mythological-sounding part was the naming, I'll get to that in a minute.

In January of 2019, during Tim's first month as executive director of Friends of the Owyhee, he and I walked out to visit the Lonesome Willow property. It's an old ranch, now Oregon Parks and Recreation Department property along Succor Creek but not part of the State Natural Area. To our surprise, while walking on the banks of Succor Creek from south to north we encountered more than a dozen beaver dams! Some small, some large, and at least one lodge. We never caught sight of the critters, but the structures seemed to be well-maintained.

Curious non-experts, we took pictures, talked about them, swapped the limited information each of us knew or would like to know, observed, and pondered. The very first step to any scientific investigation is "observe and ponder".

Along the banks of Succor Creek, we watched.

What about the naming thing? Sure, the presence of beavers might be as shocking to you as it was to us, but it would have been equally shocking to the folks that came here in 1819 looking for them. Under the Northwest Fur Company, the Donald Mackenzie party investigated the drainages feeding into the Snake River. Here, they found a lack of beaver and thicket-less streambeds.

As recorded in journals (like this one from Peter Skene Ogden, 1825), three Native Hawaiian men were sent up a Snake River tributary and they never returned. Suspected to be killed by a local band of Bannocks led by a chief named The Horse, later one skeleton was found. Honoring these lost folks, trappers named the river after them. The common spelling of Hawaii at the time was Owyhee; an early map (1825) by William Kittson records this name.

So, because of the beaver, the Owyhee received its English name—at least in a roundabout way. Many people might think it is an Indigenous word and is used to honor local Tribal languages. Nope, it's just a relic of "that river where those Hawaiian guys disappeared". I often wonder what the Bannock, Paiute, or Shoshone name is for this river. If you have any information on this, we would love to know!

So, beavers in the Owyhee. "What's the deal with that?" Tim and I both wondered after that day. Is it bad? Is it good? Neutral? Being conservation-minded, we both leaned toward good for the ecosystem, but being good skeptics, we sought data and literature. Turns out, there is a plethora of research, much on eastern Oregon streams, that beavers are an asset to small streams in the desert. And our beaver fever—not in the giardia sense luckily, but rather excitement—was on!

Beaver lodge Gnawing on a cottonwood Three dams in a row

Tim serves on the Oregon Conservation and Recreation Advisory Committee, appointed by Governor Brown, to advise the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission on expenditures related to the Oregon Conservation and Recreation Fund. Through this committee, he met Suzanne Fouty, hydrologist and beaver believer. Upon her recommendation, we both started reading Eager: The Surprising Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb. Wow! From what we have learned, here are some beaver conservation findings. Beavers and their habitat changes:

  • Improve habitats for fish and other wildlife, including amphibians, waterfowl, migratory birds, and rodents. They also provide food for predators.

  • Improve water storage and infiltration, extending availability.

  • Sequester carbon.

  • Create wildfire safe zones for wildlife and livestock.

  • Improve stream temperatures.

  • Improve recreation opportunities.

Our Succor Creek beaver experience, newly acquired knowledge, and passion for conservation have yielded a great new project proposal aligned with the Oregon Conservation Strategy. Ideally, we will need some helping hands collecting data on Owyhee beaver and encouraging habitat in spring 2021. Stay tuned, Friends!

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