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Why You Should Appreciate the Humble Beaver

The rodents are the geoengineers of the American West.

| Tue Jul. 29, 2014 4:52 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

The great novelist Wallace Stegner sorted the conflicting impulses in his beloved American West into two camps. There were the "boomers" who saw the frontier as an opportunity to get rich quick and move on: the conquistadors, the gold miners, the buffalo hunters, the land scalpers, and the dam-building good ol' boys. They are still with us, trying to drill and frack their way to Easy Street across our public lands. Then there were those Stegner called the "nesters" or "stickers" who came to stay and struggled to understand the land and its needs. Their quest was to become native.

That division between boomers and nesters is, of course, too simple. All of us have the urge to consume and move on, as well as the urge to nest, so our choices are rarely clear or final. Today, that old struggle in the American West is intensifying as heat-parched, beetle-gnawed forests ignite in annual epic firestorms, reservoirs dry up, and Rocky Mountain snow is ever more stained with blowing desert dust.

The modern version of nesters are the conservationists who try to partner with the ecosystems where they live. Wounded landscapes, for example, can often be restored by unleashing nature's own self-healing powers. The new nesters understand that you cannot steer and control an ecosystem but you might be able to dance with one. Sage Sorensen dances with beavers.

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Dances with Beavers

The dance floor is my Utah backyard, which, like most backyards out here, is a watershed. At its top is the Aquarius Plateau, the horizon I see from my deck, a gracefully rolling forest of pines and aspens that stretches for 50 miles to the south, 20 miles wide at its midpoint, and reaches 11,300 feet at its highest ridge.

The forest on top of the plateau is unique, as trees rarely grow almost two miles above sea level. That high forest is heated by the deserts that fall away around the plateau's shoulders, culminating in the amber, bone, and honey-toned canyons of Capitol Reef National Park on its eastern flank and on the west by Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

During a long career with the Bureau of Land Management, Sage Sorenson saw firsthand how beavers created rich green habitat out of overgrazed and burned-over land. Now retired, he calls himself a "beaver believer" and devotes his days to monitoring and protecting scattered "remnant" beaver colonies in our region. Quietly but persistently, he advocates for their reintroduction onto stressed landscapes that need their services.

Beavers are the original geo-engineers. It's no exaggeration to credit them for their major role in building the North American landscape. In pre-colonial times, there were as many as 400 million of them. They used their big buckteeth and tough paddle-tails to build dams across every stream imaginable, spreading water to a Noah's Ark-worth of creatures that thrive in the wet habitats they create. Now, of course, they are mostly long gone from the land, and conservationists want them back.

Sorenson recently trained and got certified to trap and transport beavers in anticipation of restocking the streams that tumble down the Aquarius Plateau. He is convinced that it is only a matter of time before they are reintroduced. After all, several of those streams have already been scientifically assessed and identified as prime candidates for such a reintroduction program. But when I talked to him at a café in the small hamlet of Boulder, Utah, he was feeling discouraged.

A remnant colony of beavers along North Creek, he told me, is just about gone. Over the last two years, at least 34 of them have been illegally shot or legally trapped by a local irrigation company. Although beaver reintroduction is getting rave reviews in places like Scotland where the last one had been trapped out hundreds of years ago and Oregon where they are healing land hammered by logging, in Utah the road back will be rough.
 

Flat-Tail Climate Hero

Beavers were once abundant across the Aquarius Plateau, but they have now retreated to its high headwaters where they do not compete with cattle or cowboys with guns. Visiting them requires strong lungs for steep hikes and sturdy boots to navigate flooded meadows. Up close, beavers look like especially large rodents that swim. Call them cute if you care to, but a wet mammal that smells like its mud hut is neither cuddly nor charismatic. They are not, in other words, like the penguins or polar bears that adorn fundraising appeals from wildlife advocates.

Nevertheless, as Sage patiently explains, they are key to the restoration of damaged watersheds. First, their dams create ponds and wetlands for diverse plants, amphibians, fish, and fowl. Eventually, those ponds fill with silt and become meadows, creating yet more habitat for another round of plants and animals.

Letting beavers do their work is one powerful way to make the land and its creatures resilient in a time of climatological stress. For example, across the planet a wide range of amphibians, including frogs and salamanders, are declining fast, becoming rare or extinct. Their sudden decline may be due to habitat loss, pollution, viruses enabled by a warming climate, or all of the above, but their disappearance is one more measure of the ecological catastrophe now underway. Beavers make wet habitat where amphibians can recover and thrive.

The aquatic insects that bloom in wetlands feed populations of stressed songbirds. Their ponds shelter fingerling fish—beavers are vegetarians—and baby ducks. Beavers are ecological servants par excellence who give life to the land. They are not only beneficial agents of biodiversity, however: humans benefit, too.

In Western forests, the beaver's stick-in-the-mud architecture spreads, slows, and deepens the flow of water from spring runoff so that it recharges underground aquifers, springs, and seeps. Slowing that runoff means that the streams feeding reservoirs last longer, possibly all summer. That's important for local agriculture, which depends on irrigation. Beaver dams improve water quality by trapping sediment that filters pollution. A lush-green landscape also inhibits landslides, floods, and fire. So beavers are not only good for the usual crew of endangered species, but also for millions of humans whose drinking water originates in heat-stressed watersheds that could be restored by the beaver's hydrological habits.

Considering all the benefits beavers bring with them, why haven't we rushed to return them to their keystone role in the Western landscape? The simple answer to a complicated question is one word: cows.

When beavers re-occupy their historic homelands, they compete with the human economy that once drove them deep into the wilds. Farmers and ranchers who irrigate their fields via ditches and culverts hate them. There are simple techniques to guard against beavers clogging irrigation systems but they are either unlearned or resisted as yet another example of unwanted government intrusion on Western life. Across the rural West, ranchers have power and influence way beyond their numbers or their contribution to the economy.
 

The Elephant in the Room Is a Cow

One man's keystone species is another's varmint. For conservationists like Sorenson who are devoted to bringing beavers back, seeing one with a bullet hole in it is not just sad, but taken as a very personal warning. Despite the popularity and success of beaver reintroduction elsewhere, in much of the American West it runs into an outsized obstacle—the iconic western cow. Not ol' Bossy chewing a cud in Wisconsin, but the wild steer chased by a cowboy with a lasso yelling "yeeha!" That cow is sacred.

In reality, cattle ranching is a tough, marginal business in this part of America and grazing on public lands makes it possible. In other words, it's heavily subsidized by distant taxpayers. Those grazing fees Cliven Bundy objects to cost less than a buck and a half per cow per month for all it can eat on federal land—food stamps for cows, indeed. Cattle ranchers, whose families have been on the land for generations, think of grazing allotments on federal land as an entitlement, even if that attitude contradicts the image of the independent cowboy they cherish. About 250 million acres—or more than half of the federal lands administered by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management—are open to cattle grazing, and that's a large arena where cowboys and conservationists compete.

Moving cows out of sensitive riparian areas (streams and springs) or putting competitors like wolves and beavers onto the land with them is seen by ranchers as the start of a slippery slope that might lead to removing cows altogether. That is, however, unlikely. In the West, cows rule. The soundtrack of Manifest Destiny may once have been the sharp crack of gunfire aimed at Indians and wolves, but it was followed by a mellow moo. Cows graze over the bones of bison and the other creatures we eliminated to make room for them.

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