Texas Tech University

It's Not Exactly a Dinosaur, but NRM Doctoral Candidate Makes Historic Discovery

George Watson

November 4, 2021

Garret D. Langlois' dedication to Lubbock’s natural resources leads to the confirmation of recolonization of beavers in Mae Simmons Park.

The Best of District IV Awards

On his own time, on his own dime, completely unrelated to his dissertation and many times in the dead of night, Department of Natural Resources Management (NRM) doctoral candidate Garret D. Langlois treks through the wooded area and cattails along the waters on the southwest side of Mae Simmons Park in East Lubbock.

He's not there clearing his head or spending time alone with his thoughts. No, there is a purpose to Langlois' passion, and it has led to a discovery that not many in Lubbock or the South Plains would have considered possible.

There, among the cattails, lies the proof: a worn swimming path near the bank where the water creature turns around and goes back into hiding. Deep in the woods is evidence the creature has constructed nesting areas and dug tunnels to remain hidden. Near the tunnels, spiky stumps erupt from the ground – the remains of small trees that were cut by large incisors.

Yes, the evidence is clear. There are beavers living in Lubbock's Canyon Lakes.

Through pictures and video taken by night-vision trail cameras and submitted to a peer-reviewed journal by researchers in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources at Texas Tech University, Langlois has confirmed the presence of a species that has been absent from this area of the U.S. for more than 5,000 years.

“I remember the day Garret brought me down here the first time and all this was fresh then,” said Phil S. Gipson, the Kleberg Professor in NRM. “I said, ‘Oh my God, there are beavers here.' It was absolutely amazing.”

It was confirmation of a suspicion that had eaten at Langlois for awhile.

Pioneering westward

Langlois hypothesizes that the North American Beavers previously believed to not occur on the Brazos River west of Knox County have been colonizing upstream for well over a decade, eventually arriving in the Canyon Lakes during the uncommonly heavy summer rains of 2015. In early May of that year, flooding rains fell on Lubbock and the South Plains, and particularly along the North Fork of the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River, which connects to Dunbar Historical Lake running through Mae Simmons Park.

But it wasn't until a beaver carcass was found in November of that year that Langlois' curiosity on the subject kicked into high gear.

His interest was intensified by a practical joke during his undergraduate days at the University of Vermont.

“We helped build a roadkill database,” Langlois said. “One day, I think it was some Texan who wanted to play a joke on some Yankees or something, we picked up an armadillo carcass. Maybe somebody threw it in the back of their truck and made the drive from Texas. So, if we update wildlife range maps based solely on a carcass, armadillo live in Vermont now, except they don't.”

But that experience remained in the back of Langlois' mind, fueling his desire to confirm whether an animal that hasn't been anywhere near the Lubbock area for five millennia could actually be recolonizing in the waters of East Lubbock. The more he thought about it, the more the potential plagued him, and he continually communicated his desire to his mentors in NRM, Gipson, President's Excellence in Research Professor Richard D. Stevens and President's Excellence in Teaching Professor Robert D. Cox.

“I sat down in Richard's office and said, ‘I want to talk about the beaver, we need to discuss the beaver because I'm not sure I believe it,'” Langlois said. “I told them about the armadillo in Vermont, and this would have been a similar example. So, I had my doubts, but it never felt right to me, never felt settled. I had to know.”

So, in what spare time he had around his doctoral dissertation work and other academic responsibilities, Langlois spent his weekends searching for live beavers along the shores of Canyon Lake 6 in Mae Simmons Park.

After months of searching, in January of 2018, Langlois discovered stumps of trees that appeared to have been chewed roughly 1-3 years past. Other signs began to appear, such as cattails that had been mashed down in places where the beavers haul themselves out onto land.

Chewed trees
Langlois discovered stumps of trees that appeared to have been chewed, among other signs.

A search through the heavily wooded area along the southern shore of Canyon Lake 6 in late March of 2018 turned up a nesting spot where a beaver had tunneled through and water from the lake had risen to the surface, and another spot indicated the presence of a beaver den and further partially collapsed tunnel openings, all signs pointing to the presence of the beaver.

But beavers are nocturnal, so it was highly unlikely there were ever going to be any daytime sightings of the creatures. So, Langlois borrowed three motion-activated trail cameras from Gipson and deployed them on trees along the water near where the den was discovered.

Finally, after almost four months of checking the trail cameras, on July 8, 2018, Langlois' hypothesis became reality. There, on the trail cameras, were a pair of North American Beavers swimming through the waters of Canyon Lake 6. Langlois had his confirmation.

“These beavers seem to come out particularly late,” Langlois said. “Only twice have I seen them out at dusk. The photos and video I got happened at midnight and two in the morning.”

Langlois says these beavers are particularly active overnight.

Langlois put all his findings into a paper currently in peer review for publication, providing definitive proof that the North American Beaver has returned to the South Plains and is making its base right here in Lubbock.

Langlois then spent the next few months gathering data and credible reports of beaver encounters downstream from the Canyon Lakes, uncovering evidence that beaver had been cryptically colonizing the 91 river miles of the North Fork of the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River for the past decade, giving credence to their hypothesized arrival in the Canyon Lake system.

“They're great to have here,” Cox said. “They can sometimes be polarizing even within restorations because we plant trees or engineer a stream bank, and then the beavers have their own ideas about where those trees should or shouldn't be or where the stream bank should or shouldn't be. But they usually have the right idea.”

The question now becomes – what next?

Preserving the habitat

All involved in the project agree that having beavers in the Canyon Lakes is good not only for the species but for the city as well. The wooded area provides terrific protection from predators, and even the Black-crowned Night-Herons that roost there provide an early warning alarm system for the beavers if any predators or humans come into the area.

And given that the beavers have proven to be pretty low maintenance, there's not much citizens need to do to preserve their existence, other than just letting them be.

“It's good news if we can be accepting of them,” Langlois said. “Right now, many of the problems that typically emerge with having beavers, we likely won't see as much. Sometimes people don't like the dams because they promote flooding, but right now, in this area, it's already dammed and we already built them. Sometimes people might not like beaver lodges, but these beaver den in tunnels. They don't need to take down many trees for a winter food cache because we have a very warm climate.

“Now, one of the problems that could emerge is beavers blocking undersized culverts, and of course that would cause flooding. But I just checked a week ago, as best I could. I drove as far as I could through the stream ecosystem and I looked at every culvert and they're clean as a whistle.”

North American Beaver
North American Beaver (stock photo)

Gipson agreed and said beavers have the potential to add quite a bit to the ecosystem they occupy.

“They've got everything they need right here along this system,” Gipson said. “There may still be some movement out onto lawns and taking down an ornamental tree here and there. But if that starts to be a problem, a very quick fix is to put hardwire cloth or welded wire to about knee high and that will stop that. They're just a wonderful addition, and the diversity they bring to most habitats, especially when they go upstream to the tributaries, can result in so many other features.”

The best thing Lubbock citizens can do is to welcome them. Because they are nocturnal, the prospect of seeing one during the day is extremely low, and people should refrain from harming the wooded area surrounding their habitat.'

“They're wildlife and they're largely going to take care of them themselves,” Langlois said. “They live off the cattails. Even when the city does a periodic burn of those, it would reduce some of their food-stuffs, but I don't know if that would necessarily be a problem. They might just switch to other plants. I don't think they need much help from us.”

Finding his own way

Beavers weren't the only thing Langlois discovered within the woods along Canyon Lake 6. He also found a sense of purpose.

“Finding and confirming the presence of the beaver did mean a lot to me,” Langlois said. “It helped me get sense of place in Lubbock. I'm a New England guy, and this is a town where they laugh at people from Fort Worth for being all hat and no cattle. It can be a little daunting coming here, a little bit of a culture shock, but this project helped me kind of find my way to love Lubbock.”

To Gipson, it also helped create what he feels is sorely lacking within natural resources study. The passion and dedication Langlois showed in this project for which he got no funding, which he had to do in his spare time has set him on the path to becoming a true naturalist.

“When I met him a few years back, he was obviously a scholar and a sharp guy,” Gipson said. “But I saw this as evidence that he was really becoming a naturalist, of the old school, and we don't teach that anymore, and it's a terrible, terrible shame. You have to go outside and live it. It becomes your life, a big part of it, and when I saw the glow in his face, and I guess mine, too, I could feel it, and, my God, those beavers set me on fire. He was enjoying the flame. It was real. I think one of the highest compliments I can pay to Garret is I really think he is becoming a true naturalist. That takes time and becomes a part of who you are not just what you are. He's got great potential.”