Lets talk beavers. Beaver dams. Water Retention. Complete natural areas alteration. Billions of gallons of water – all largely missing today.
Why would beavers be important? You probably have lots of other worries, but in the face of global warming and increasingly severe regional droughts, we should want more, not less water – and beavers are nature’s ultimate water-cooler braggart. We desperately need them doing their jobs again.
Beavers nearly became extinct at the height of fur-trapping 150+ years ago. They have slowly returned to~25% of their original pre-colonization population in North America (with regional differences). Beaver are the ultimate water-engineers on earth. Their dams once collectively held the billions (if not trillions) gallons of water in a variety of changing habitats, as groundwater and aquifer storage, and via local evaporation & rainfall.
Today, this dynamic is largely gone from even the wildest places in the eastern US. Water retention aside, the ecological dynamics, niche-space, and open-area habitats that beavers provide for other wildlife and plants is among the most drastic and remarkable landscape-altering and improving actions any single wildlife species may achieve. In fact, many farmers and gardeners still produce food in topsoil collected by beavers ponds over millennia.
The complex mosaic of habitats a single beaver family can create is unlike anything else in our landscape. They create fresh open water which is followed by aquatic plant invasion, sedge & shrub bogs, swamp forest, and then abandonment, transition to swamp and then alluvial forest – then back to beaver pond over long periods of time. It’s truly a stunning cycle, the byproduct of which is naturally billions of gallons of water held within a given region, percolated, evaporated, rained, and discharged slowly rather than the rapid runoff and loss we experience today.
Hundreds of species of plants including orchids, sedges, rushes, and wildlife fish, waterfowl, shorebirds, amphibians, reptiles, migratory songbirds and other mammals may flourish in just a small area as beaver ponds are created, expanded, and abandoned.
Beavers, their dams, ponds, and abandoned returning forests are truly one of the many “ghost” ecosystems and dynamics lost nationally, and in all regions. We should restore them anywhere we can today, especially as droughts export water and the habitats beavers could improve are kept beaver-free because some humans think they are “pests”. I know of no other native species that gives as much as beaver do – the problem is our understanding of what they do.
Check out this documentary on beavers and find out more about beavers and what they really do.