Did Beaver give the Owyhee its name?
Updated: Jul 29
Not exactly, but 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? Beaver, in the Owyhee!?! The Owyhee beaver are 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. Its an old ranch, now Oregon Parks and Recreation Department property along Succor Creek but not part of the State Natural Area (a story for another time!). To our surprise, while walking on the banks of Succor Creek from south to north we encountered a dozen (or more) beaver dams! Some small, some large, and at least one lodge! We never caught sight of the critters, but those 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. As a scientist, the very first step to any investigation is "observe and ponder".
Along the banks of Succor Creek, we watched.
What about the naming thing? Sure, the presence of Beaver might be as shocking to you as it was 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 by William Kittson in 1825 records this name.
So, because of Beaver the Owyhee received its English name, in a round about way. Many people might think it is an indigenous word and is used to honor local tribal languages. Nope. It is a relict of "you know, 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, Beaver in the Owyhee! "What's the big deal with that"? Tim and I both wondered the same thing after that day. Is it bad? Is it good? Neutral? Being conservation minded, we both leaned toward "good for the ecology", but being good skeptics... we sought data and literature. Turns out, there is a plethora of research, much on eastern Oregon streams, that beaver are an asset to small streams in the desert. And our beaver fever -- not in the giardia sense, but 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 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:
ponds improve fish and wildlife habitat, including amphibians, waterfowl, and rodents; food for predators
improve water storage and infiltration, extending availability
ponds sequester and store carbon
create wildfire safe zone for wildlife and livestock
improve migratory bird habitat
improve stream temperatures
and improve recreation opportunities!
Our Beaver experience at Succor Creek, our newly acquired knowledge, and passion for conservation have yield a great new proposed project 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!