Do you ever become enthralled with something after just a brief brush with it? A quick encounter that intensifies to a fever pitch? Allow me to let you in on my most recent fixation. I was inspired to write this article when I took a walk along the river at the back of my property, through the domain of a woodland theriomorph. A mysterious shapeshifter, not of himself, but rather of land and water, wedding the two in a harmonious embrace. He is simultaneously a sculptor in soft earth and an architect of raw timber, masterfully designing and crafting his surroundings into a vision of his own. He creates a product that is naturally arresting by virtue of the tireless dedication, pragmatism, and ingenuity involved. His intuition is preternatural, creating opportunity with nothing but physical refinement and acute mental faculties. A creature that fashions both the form and function of a landscape through superior talent and determination. One whose efforts have shaped the land long before shovel-toting laborers and exhaust-belching machines ever did. Not only are his abilities renowned, but he has a generous disposition and shares his self-made spoils with neighboring fauna and flora. Praise cannot be overly showered upon such a magnificently indispensable creature. Who am I referring to? None other than the American beaver, of course.
At a basic level, we all know that beavers chew trees, create dams, and build lodges. Many of us view beavers as being disruptive, rather than productive. We think of them as plump precursors to waterway disruption. Hairy overbites creating ponds that alter the path and flow of channels, being too witless and single-minded to understand anything beyond the direct benefits such actions bring to themselves. This simplistic and misconceived view of these oversized rodents and their actions speaks nought to the ecosystem level implications of their behavior. Many would be surprised to realize that beavers, in the same family as mice and squirrels, create rich, biodiverse habitats unrivaled by any other creature on our planet. Beavers don’t just make themselves homes and blockade rivers; they create sanctuary for everything from tiny invertebrates up to our most iconic species such as deer, moose, and bear. In fact, the effects of their actions are so great that much contemporary research and thought revolves around these creatures being indispensable buffers in a world becoming ever more variable and inhospitable by the climate change we’ve manufactured. Have I piqued your interest enough to read a little more about the modest beaver?
Given the incredible capabilities and magnificent potential that these creatures bring, I wonder why, as a general sentiment, they are held in such poor accord? We even go as far as to possess an audacity that paints them as vermin with an insatiable appetite for destruction. It seems love for them only existed when they were worth their weight in gold as the staple of European outerwear in a bygone era. We all know that beavers were hunted heavily for their pelts, to the brink of extinction in North America. The beavers’ Eurasion cousin had already been extirpated many centuries ago and the discovery of the New World produced an unspoiled population ripe for exploitation. These creatures, with a peak population exceeding 60 million individuals across the continent by many estimates, were nearly relegated only to the accounts of long-dead naturalists and trappers. This kind of large scale eradication was nearly as reprehensible as the mass cullings of bison, who were pushed even precariously closer to the edge of extinction.
And the story just seems to end there, at least as far as my history books ever bothered to reveal. Our knowledge of this marvelous species has been cheated by this skimpy representation of cheap facts centered solely around its role in early capitalism. We largely know beavers as they have related to our selfish history, but the species’ effects on natural history are far more important. It first needs to be pointed out, though, that this critter’s treatment as a commodity makes the uncanniness of its humanistic qualities more ironic. Let us take a quick look at how much our behavior resembles theirs.
Beavers build their own residences with dedicated spaces, segmented into nurseries, dining areas, and sleeping quarters. Gee, sounds awfully like our idea of a house. They create a larder in their ponds as a storehouse for convenient supplies of food to be preserved and eaten, especially throughout winter. Hmm, does a root cellar, pantry, or refrigerator ring a bell? Many people don’t realize that beavers actually build systems of canals that lead out from their ponds into the woods for unfettered and efficient travel to resources. One could make an easy comparison to our road network. Lastly, beavers are not content in just conforming to their surroundings. Where we use tools, they use the natural endowment of their features, such as rudder-like tails, sharp ever-growing incisors, and webbed feet, to power their desire for a world suited to their preferences. No other creature on earth, besides man, creates such a profound impact on their surroundings. They command the elemental symphony of their surroundings with the fluidity of an orchestral conductor. And even then, man would be able to do very little with his habitat if he were not aided by the use of tools and machines. Beavers use no tools to execute their work; they simply use the refined mechanics of their own bodies.
What does this anthropomorphic view of the beaver accomplish? Well, maybe as little as a slight interest. Maybe as much as reverence. Ideally, though, it would be a shift of opinion away from considering them a pest that would let them live another day. If all we did was no more than just let them be, we could experience richer biodiversity, a landscape wondrously insured against an ever-changing environment, increased aesthetics, and abundant natural water resources. These are worth a great fortune in terms of quality of life and our continued existence. But as man has done so many times before, we manifest defeat by chipping away at the pillars of our own existence. We slash and burn the green lungs on the only spinning rock in the universe capable of supporting us while simultaneously infecting the blue blood of its waters with toxins and waste.
So what exactly do beavers do that make them worthy of such profound superlatives? I’m glad you asked because the facts need to be stated and the possibilities imagined. Where does one begin in their adulation of the almighty beaver? Well, let’s start with the most impressive thing that they do: create wetlands. Let me say that again: beavers create wetlands. A species consciously capable of changing the land’s form and function. This environment is rarely even created by the invisible grace of Mother Nature, making it even more impressive that it is frequently accomplished by a woolly rodent. But beavers, well, they make it look easy when they siphon water to make moats around their stick castles with ease. Whether wet climate or dry, beavers use the existing water in their environment to create hydro engineering marvels. Take a look at the pictures below of an area in the arid southwest of landscape before and after beaver introduction. You will be stunned by its transformation into an oasis.
By constructing a dam and reducing the flow of waterways, beavers are able to collect and disperse water over a large surface area which heavily saturates the underlying soil, raising the water table in effect. This slowed water creates a pond of still or slightly flowing water that allows aquatic plants to take hold below and above the surface with shrubby vegetation establishing itself along the water’s edge. This leads to an overall richness of habitat complexity that draws in and supports burgeoning levels of biodiversity from birds to mammals and everything in between. This is the general process by which these beavers establish a wetland. But, the benefits to the environment are not over.
When beavers create their pond ecosystems, the newly formed body of water penetrates deep into the soil. This water leaches into underwater aquifers and recharges what is many times a parched groundwater supply. A benefit that many perennially dehydrated parts of this country could desperately use. Additionally, beaver dam impoundments help decontaminate water sources by reducing siltation and filtering out impurities. That’s right, beavers even make our most precious resource clearer and cleaner. So, not only do beavers alter hydrodynamics within the ecosystem to create new opportunities for flora and fauna, but they also make the environment more resilient by allowing for greater storage and spread of filtered water supplies. To put it simply, beavers fundamentally change the capacities of the land around them. They make an environment that can absorb increasingly unpredictable amounts of precipitation that prevents destructive run-off and flooding, while also preserving water when it is scarce. This is a major reason beavers are such powerful agents in preventing catastrophic effects from climate change.
Beavers are creatures of amazing capabilities. Their capabilities are elusive, yet yield obvious, tangible results that are undoubtedly transformative. These unassuming rodents are the most impactful keystone species that we possess. In a natural ecological state, beavers are a keystone species for other wildlife. But in this time of drastic, anthropogenically-induced change, they have been elevated to a keystone species for us humans as well. We have squandered our opportunities at striking a balance with the earth’s ecology and resources, and worse – we have shown ourselves to be woefully incapable of correcting our own mistakes. We have quite simply failed at accepting accountability. And although public opinion may be coming closer to an acceptance of our near calamitous influence on the environment, we are still unwilling to act in a concerted fashion to restrain and reverse our actions. As has happened over a vast timescale, the work of beavers help keep our landscape and resources in equilibrium. It is now time to restore this competent creature back to its rightful place and allow them to clean up a mess we cannot contain.