• Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem;
  • fluvial geomorphology;
  • beaver;
  • Castor canadensis;
  • climate change


Two centuries of human activities in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) have strongly influenced beaver activity on small streams, raising questions about the suitability of the historical (Euro-American) period for establishing stream reference conditions. We used beaver-pond deposits as proxy records of beaver occupation to compare historical beaver activity to that throughout the Holocene. Forty-nine carbon-14 (14C) ages on beaver-pond deposits from Grand Teton National Park indicate that beaver activity was episodic, where multi-century periods lacking dated beaver-pond deposits have similar timing to those previously documented in Yellowstone National Park. These gaps in the sequence of dated deposits coincide with episodes of severe, prolonged drought, e.g. within the Medieval Climatic Anomaly 1000–600 cal yr bp, when small streams likely became ephemeral. In contrast, many beaver-pond deposits date to 500–100 cal yr bp, corresponding to the colder, effectively wetter Little Ice Age. Abundant historical beaver activity in the early 1900s is coincident with a climate cooler and wetter than present and more abundant willow and aspen, but also regulation of beaver trapping and the removal of wolves (the beaver's main predator), all favorable for expanded beaver populations. Reduced beaver populations after the 1920s, particularly in the northern Yellowstone winter range, are in part a response to elk overbrowsing of willow and aspen that later stemmed from wolf extirpation. Beaver populations on small streams were also impacted by low streamflows during severe droughts in the 1930s and late 1980s to present. Thus, both abundant beaver in the 1920s and reduced beaver activity at present reflect the combined influence of management practices and climate, and underscore the limitations of the early historical period for defining reference conditions. The Holocene record of beaver activity prior to Euro-American activities provides a better indication of the natural range of variability in beaver-influenced small stream systems of the GYE. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.