At first glance, the sight of a large cottonwood standing precariously on a dwindling stump is a cause for concern, but before we lament over the loss of this quiet giant, we should take a closer look at the culprit behind such seemingly mindless destruction: the North American Beaver.
As a biological science technician for the City of Colorado Springs, receiving calls and emails from concerned citizens regarding beaver activity on city property is a regular occurrence at my office. While removing the beaver and moving on with our lives seems like the easiest solution, I believe we should take this opportunity to educate ourselves, to take a closer look at the ecological consequences of having beavers in our parks, and to reevaluate our idea of what a “healthy” environment looks like.
Beavers are considered a keystone species – one that has a disproportionately large effect on the environment in which they exist. In this case, the large impact is a result of their characteristic dam-building behavior. Flooding from beaver dams creates new wetlands upstream, and while they may not be the most visually stunning environments, there is more to these wet spots than meets the eye. Benefits of wetlands include providing critical habitat to an abundance of plants and animals, water storage, carbon fixation, stream bank reinforcement, enhanced nutrient cycling and flood protection.
Benefits of damming may suggest that beavers adhere to a utilitarian philosophy by which their very purpose is to create the greatest amount of good possible, but, in reality, this behavior stems from a place of self-interest. Beavers build dams to create deep pools of water in which they can construct their lodge and are safe from predators.
While the ecological benefits of beaver activity in natural environments are evident, the question remains: is there a place for them alongside humans in urban environments?
It is not that beaver-induced damming and flooding are a new treatment in North America, but rather a forgotten practice unfamiliar to many. The extermination of beavers in North America dates back to the early 17th century when European fur trappers arrived en masse. Over-trapping, originating in the northeast, created a new culture and a new landscape across the country. As pioneers in hopes of new found wealth pushed their way west, fur trappers often led the way. A repercussion of over-trapping was a much drier environment, one that North Americans have since grown accustomed to. Modern adaptation to this comparatively arid landscape is an example of a “shifting baseline” in which each generation accepts what they see and experience outside to be natural.
Historically, the prescription for unwanted beavers was trapping and killing, but people have since accepted more humane practices such as relocation, protecting at-risk trees with wire or paint, and the installation of water-control structures and other devices that allow us to protect culverts and drain water without disturbing the beavers. Trapping and relocating is not without its challenges, including stress put on the animal and the high risk of a new beaver moving into the abandoned territory.
Naturalist John Muir once wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Whenever we introduce or remove a species from an environment, we usually observe a cascade of unforeseen consequences that follow. I am concerned that if we collectively agree to remove beavers from their homes across our public lands, the result will be an unintended loss of life, impacting each organism that benefits from beaver-constructed wetlands — from mayfly to moose.
If you are facing difficulties with beavers on your property, I implore you to explore options of mitigation, including contacting your local wildlife agency, before resorting to relocation or extermination.
Accused of cutting down trees, clogging drains, and flooding private property, the beaver awaits our verdict, but before we convict them over such “damming” evidence, let us consider the real cost of removal. The beaver’s impact is far-reaching. What does it say about us if we are so quick to remove any species that poses a mild inconvenience? And what consequences of our actions remain unfound?
As humans, we are posed with many important decisions regarding land management. How we treat our natural resources reflects our understanding of the world we live in. We have an inclination to control our surroundings, and beavers threaten that sense of control. I believe it is time we learn to coexist with beavers and to work with nature, rather than against it.
By protecting beaver populations across the continent, we are employing a workforce of ecological engineers that will continuously work to repair degraded environments, creating a ripple that will benefit all wildlife and promote a heritage of environmental stewardship to be passed on to future generations.
Sam Richards is a biological science technician for the City of Colorado Springs.