Ben Davis’ journey to a master’s degree combined both his love of fishing and his drive to investigate the history of the North American West. His degree studies led Davis to research about the Big Hole River, riparian issues, as well as the fur trade of the 1800s.
“The Big Hole fluctuates dramatically,” Davis said. “It gets very high during spring runoff but can go down to a trickle or even run dry in some spots. I went out there with one big question: What’s going on with the river for it to run completely dry?”
He broke it down to three stages of geological functions reaching as far back as the fur traders when the river first changed drastically. It all traced back to the beavers.
“Beavers set up dams that slowed the release of water downstream,” he said. “Beavers create slow, braided streams and larger floodplains. Take the beaver out of the environment and the river becomes like flushing a toilet.”
Add to that agricultural development, spurred by the gold rush of the 1860s and free range cattle. Homesteading acts also created large tracts of ownership, leading to more impacts on the water. The third factor is the rise of fishery management and efforts to keep stream flows more stable. “For a time US Fish and Wildlife used subsidies to keep landowners from irrigating.”
Though his discipline is history, Davis’ thesis relied heavily on studying river ecology and geomorphology, federal land use laws and water rights.
“Our department has three strong areas, environmental history, history of science and technology and history of the American West. You can’t start talking about the first two without having a firm understanding of the ecological processes you’re investigating.”
Davis’s graduate studies are the embodiment of the ISNAW: Informing future policy and practices in Western landscapes with an integrated understanding of its history, culture and the development of science and technology.