BOX ELDER COUNTY — Volunteers are working tirelessly to help a group of beavers credited for slowing the flow of an oil leak at Willard Bay.
Three of the animals were rescued from their tainted home last week after a pipeline break led to the release of diesel fuel into Willard Creek. Officials said it's likely the beavers' dam stopped the fuel from reaching a nearby wildlife habitat in Willard Bay.
The beavers have taken refuge at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah, where a team of biologists and volunteers spend all day caring for them.
The beavers spend 90 minutes in a bath under close watch three times a day.
"They are lethargic and have a tendency to fall asleep at odd moments," said DaLyn Erickson, executive director of the rehabilitation center.
The animals are then fed and allowed to rest in freshly-cleaned cages. It's a big effort in pursuit of an unsure recovery.
"It's encouraging but it's also a little bit scary," said Erickson. "In this business, we've been let down before."
One of the beavers has trouble breathing.
"He had some burns in his nostrils from the diesel fuel," said Erickson.
The hope was that the labored breathing was a result of inflammation and not something worse. Erickson said she watched closely for any signs of improvement.
"One beaver in particular is a little bit obstinate and wants to fight us in every turn," she said.
That attitude gave those helping the beavers hope that the animals were on the road to recovery.
"When you put this much time into an animal, you get very much attached. You have a stake in them. You really want to see them back in the wild."
On Tuesday, biologists discovered a fourth beaver in the oil spill area. Catching the animal proved to be a difficult task — once they tried to get it out of a lodge, it got away.
Erickson said the three beavers undergoing treatment are not out of the woods just yet. However, something as simple as walking back to a cage is a sign that things are getting much better than they were, she said.
"When you put this much time into an animal, you get very much attached," Erickson said. "You have a stake in them. You really want to see them back in the wild."
She said she also worried for the many other animals that have been affected by the spill. So far more than 500 barrels of diesel fuel have been recovered. Crews still have up to 150 left to go.
Initial tests conducted by the state showed no effect on human health or the environment.
The volunteers at the rehabilitation center said helping with the beavers' recovery has been so time consuming they may have to cancel their annual fundraiser next month.