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Walk Softly – Beavers – Good or Bad?


I was looking at some older news clips I had saved and came across one which seemed innocuous, at first, but later proved to be a bit of a hot pepper! It was quite complementary about beavers, when it stated: "Climate Superheroes – Beaver ponds saturate soil and plants, making them more resistant to fire. Beaver ponds allow water to soak in and slow down flooding. Beaver ponds are safe places for wildlife to take refuge during fires. Plants around beaver ponds are more resilient and rebound more quickly. Beaver ponds store water above and below the ground, even during drought”.

Okay, doesn’t sound too awful, but the comments which followed this post were angry and accusatory. I was quite surprised at the vehemence of some of them. Reading these, one can presume most of the respondents had had a bad encounter with these large rodents, and had lost trees and habitat to them over the years.

That doesn’t mean beavers are perfect: they’re not. Witness a re-introduction into southern Argentina, a few years ago, where the natural checks on the beaver’s populations don’t exist, and the beaver’s impact can therefore be seen as devastating. In that case they destroyed much of the local forest preserve, in Tierra del Fuego National Park. Flash forward to a recent announcement from Great Britain, where the Eurasian Beavers will be re-introduced to a park in London. Will the outcome be as devastating? Time will tell, but again, the natural predators don’t exist in London, so I suspect this may be another failed attempt.

Okay, what about here in Canada? Well, I won’t say our beavers are always in balance with nature, and I won’t say they’re not. We simply have a lot of them. Trapping and natural predators seem to keep them under some form of control, and have for eons. Many of the claims in the original post, cited above, are true. As wetlands disappear and we destroy habitats, so these beaver-created wetlands can be critical habitat for aquatic amphibians, insects, mammals and birds. As a reservoir for water they can show both immediate benefits and long-term ones, as they recharge the aquifers below them. Fire is a constant threat, it seems, so these ponds may in fact be lifesaving harborages for many animals.

We tend, when viewing nature, to think of it in isolation: we plant a tree and all is good. However, we forget, underground, all trees are linked by mycelia, small fungi which are essential to a forest’s health. We cut down weeds because who needs weeds anyway? Yet we forget these plants are flowering plants and a weed is, after all, just a plant we think is in the wrong place. Insects, birds and small mammals need these plants to survive. Our pollinators need these ‘weeds’ so we can have food on our tables.

The bottom line: nature doesn’t think in straight lines. Everything is interconnected. Beavers flood land which kills some trees, but these dead trees become food for insects which feed woodpeckers and more. These ponds encourage cattail growth, which is known to be a water-borne contaminant trap. In fact, the government has tested and utilized cattails in the past, to remove persistent organochlorines out of the water column.

We need to better understand how complex nature actually is. Right now, we are battling climate change, but even now we don’t get it: nature is not linear, every action affects another and itself is affected.

Aldo Leopold said it well when he said “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism, as a whole, is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of [eons], has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

In a future column, I will write more about the beaver and share some tidbits about its biology.

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

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