Lets talk beaver. Beaver dams. Water Retention. Complete natural areas alteration. Billions of gallons of water – all largely missing today.
Why would beaver 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 beaver 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: fresh open water, aquatic plant invasion, bogs, swamp forest, and then abandonment with breached dams, transition to swamp and then alluvial forest – then back to beaver pond over long periods of time. It’s truly a stunning cycle of open water, to herb and shrub bogs, to swamp forest, and then closed canopy forest – the byproduct of which is naturally billions of gallons of water held, percolated, evaporated, rained, and discharged slowly rather than the rapid runoff and export we mostly experience today.
With beaver ponds, hundreds of species of plants including orchids, sedges, rushes, and wildlife fish, waterfowl, shorebirds, amphibians, reptiles, migratory songbirds and other mammal may flourish in just a small area as beaver ponds are created, expanded, and abandoned.
Beaver, their dams, ponds, and abandoned returning forests are truly one of the many “ghost” ecosystems and dynamics nationally, and in nearly all regions. We should restore them anywhere we can now, especially as droughts export water their potential habitats are kept beaver-free simply because people 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.