The Current

An unlikely ally in the face of wildfires and droughts: the humble beaver

Researchers are exploring whether beavers could offer solutions to the climate crisis, particularly in how their dams can stave off forest fires and droughts.

Beaver dams and canals can stave off wildfires and droughts: scientist

A water dappled beaver appears to be elated while eating a small green leaf amidst some greenery and branches.
A juvenile beaver who has been delighting hikers on the Ned’s Pond Trail in Stephenville, N.L., pictured here nibbling on some alders. (Submitted by Frank Gale)

In the face of increasing wildfires and droughts, scientists are looking to a highly skilled "environmental engineer" to help fight climate change: the industrious beaver.

"They build these dams, which slow the water down, they dig canals that spread the water out, and ultimately they just give it time to sink into the earth like a big old sponge," said Emily Fairfax, an assistant professor of environmental science and resource management at California State University Channel Islands.

"Whenever you have a drought or a flood or a fire, it's a much more resilient system to that disturbance," she told The Current's guest host Nahlah Ayed. 

Fairfax co-authored a research paper calling beavers a key part of a climate action plan for North America, and calling for greater efforts at co-existence and repopulation in specific regions. The paper was published in the journal WIREs Water in April

"They are highly skilled environmental engineers — beavers have the somewhat unique ability to move into just about any landscape and transform it to suit their own needs," she said.

Fairfax argues that humans could benefit from those skills in the fight against climate change. In her work, she's seen examples "where a huge, catastrophic fire comes through a landscape and there's just these great big green patches [where beavers live]."

Later, when ash and sediment washes into rivers and threatens fish, it "gets caught up in these beaver ponds and they sort of filter it out and keep that water downstream clear," she said.

Fairfax got some raised eyebrows when she started talking about beavers and climate action some years ago. But as impacts like droughts and wildfires have grown more frequent — and more pronounced — people have started to look for new ideas, she said. 

"We've seen such increasingly damaging effects from these year after year, and people are sort of like, 'All right, we've tried so much. What haven't we tried?'" she said.

"Well, beavers!"

Beavers 'work for free'

Researcher Glynnis Hood first became interested in beavers 20 years ago, when her 2002 PhD study of wetlands was disrupted by a record-breaking drought that hit North America.

"The ponds that had beavers in them had nine times more open water extent than ponds without beavers, in the same area," said Hood, a professor of environmental science at the University of Alberta and author of The Beaver Manifesto.

LISTEN | Glynnis Hood on learning to live alongside the noble beaver

She told The Current that beavers represent an incredible workforce, who "don't take weekends … [and] work for free."

"I've worked on projects where dams have had to be removed, and by the next morning they're back," she said.

"The maintenance of these dams is ongoing, so when beavers are actively occupying a pond, they are also actively managing their landscape quite a bit."

That industriousness may be why beavers have come into conflict with humans so frequently, with Fairfax explaining that "both of us want to control the landscape — and have the means to do so."

"Maybe humans want to drain our wetland and build housing there, but beavers want to build more wetland and make it even soggier," she said.

A woman examines a beaver dam
Emily Fairfax examines a beaver dam. She thinks the creatures could help in the fight against climate change. (Submitted by Emily Fairfax)

"Historically, we would just throw our hands in the air and say, 'Ah, can't live with this beaver, got to kill it,' which is not productive."

She said there are ways to limit the damage that beavers can cause, while still benefiting from the ecosystem services they offer. Trees can be protected using wire fencing, and pipes that allow water to flow through a dam — called pond levellers — can prevent upstream flooding. 

Where beavers have left an area, efforts in river restoration or even installing a fake dam could entice them back, she said.

Fairfax would like to see governments fund and support measures like this, as well as draft "beaver management or beaver co-existence plans, and stick with them."

"We should be exploring co-existence a lot more often," she said. "How can we live with the beavers? How can we educate the community?"

Continental-scale change

Fairfax said she understands scepticism that "this massive rodent is a climate-change hero," but she wants people to consider the scale of loss in beaver populations since North American colonization. 

Previously, there were "anywhere from 100 to 400 million beavers on North America's continent — today, we're looking at 10 to 30 million," she said. 

Those remaining beavers are creating patches of land that show promising resistance to the impacts of climate change, she said.

"Imagine what that would be if we had ten times as many. And instead of patches, it was continuous streaks of wetlands throughout the landscape," she said.

"That's continental-scale change."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Padraig Moran

Journalist

Padraig Moran is a writer and digital producer for CBC Radio’s The Current, taking great stories from the airwaves to our online audience. He started his journalism career in Ireland primarily covering arts and entertainment, then spent five years at The Times of London in the U.K., before joining the CBC when he moved to Toronto in 2017. You can reach him at padraig.moran@cbc.ca.

Produced by Enza Uda and Brianna Gosse

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