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Why You Should Appreciate the Humble Beaver

The rodents are the geoengineers of the American West.

| Tue Jul. 29, 2014 5:52 PM EDT

Our Dams, Not Theirs

Like the beavers they replaced, cows have reshaped the land—not, in their case, by creating habitat but by destroying it. The pioneers who first came upon southern Utah described the vast grasslands they found there. That grass is long gone. The soil blew away, too, and rusting fences now swing above gullies or are buried under dunes. When millions of cows and sheep were let loose on that fragile soil, massive erosion and the disappearance of that vast native grassland followed. It never came back. When Congress finally stepped in and passed grazing regulations in 1934, improvements followed.

Conservationists claim that cows are today contributing to the die-off of the West's beloved aspen groves by eating tree seedlings and short-circuiting forest succession. They also spread highly flammable cheat grass in their voluminous poop. But whatever damage cows do directly to public lands pales in comparison to the way the infrastructure necessary for the cattle business has captured western water sources and de-watered western lands.

Stegner's boomers dammed thousands of rivers and streams, while building pipelines through our national forests down to valley floors. Aqueducts, canals, and tunnels followed. The growth of many western towns is rooted in the building of a water infrastructure that has allowed us to suck the forests dry in order to irrigate the fields of alfalfa that feed those cows. And yet—hold onto your hats for this—only a miniscule 3% of the nation's beef is raised in the West.

Yet at least 80% of the water out here goes to alfalfa and other cow-food crops. When you get those dire warnings about the Colorado River going dry and Phoenix and Vegas blowing away, remember this: because the cattlemen own the rights, cows get a lion's share of whatever water is left after the western watersheds are baked and burned. We grow so much cow-food that we now essentially export our precious water to China in the form of alfalfa.
 

Beavers as Underdogs

Now maybe you're beginning to see just why the odds are so stacked against the lowly beaver. Americans have forgotten the formative nature of our relationship with that creature. Not only did European explorers encounter a landscape that had been thoroughly carved out and watered by them, but a robust trade in beaver pelts drove settlement. Pelts that were made into warm hats for wealthy people were a kind of rodent gold and trappers couldn't get enough of them.

Under the grinding wheel of a voracious commerce in furs, beavers were so trapped-out that they seemed to be headed for the fate of the once plentiful but now extinct passenger pigeon. This precipitous decline was reversed by one of North America's earliest conservation campaigns.

In the 1920s, through the new medium of film the public imagination was captured by a Canadian Indian named Grey Owl. He lived on a lake with his wife, Anahareo, and raised orphaned beaver kits, explaining their ecological importance and the consequences of their loss to a public unfamiliar with the beaver's role in keeping forests healthy. As the original beaver-believers cuddled their kits, audiences ooohed and aaahed.

Eventually Grey Owl was exposed as Archie Belaney, an Englishman posing as an Indian, but by then the message he had delivered had been translated into governance. Beaver trapping was strictly regulated across most of the West and eventually many colonies recovered. Today, there are far more beavers in North America, perhaps 10 million, than at their near-extinction moment, but their distribution on the land remains thin and uneven. Once upon a time, hundreds of millions of them helped create the American landscape. It would be fitting if, in the era of global warming, the beaver's influence came full circle, this time as a means of making heat-stressed landscapes more resilient.
 

Are Beavers a Plot Against Humanity?

Most of the land in the American West is federally owned and managed, despite recent schemes by local tea-hadis to take it over and sell it to the highest bidder (or closest crony). Because federal lands are a national treasure that we own together, there are rules for the sustainable use of it and sanctions for abuse. Those rules and policies are negotiated by stakeholders and change over time. That is happening now as our forests and grasslands are baked by prolonged drought.

In 2009, a Utah Beaver Advisory Committee composed of wildlife biologists, forest rangers, ranchers, trappers, farmers, and conservationists hammered out a plan to restore healthy beaver populations to their historic range across Utah "where appropriate." The beaver's ecological service was finally acknowledged, but with the proviso that it be balanced against "human needs." Getting such an endorsement for restoration and protection, however qualified, was an important first step and a catalyst for a grassroots campaign to "leave it to beavers."

An agreement had been reached among stakeholders traditionally at odds. It was a rare feat of consensus building in a political environment where acrimony generally reigns supreme and it could have been a model for resolving other conflicts over land use and regulation. Instead, local politicians, in a panic that beavers might "steal" water, have effectively resisted it.

Joe Wheaton, who teaches watershed hydrology and restoration at Utah State University, says the science on this is clear: there is no net water loss downstream from beaver dams. If anything, they only increase a watershed's capacity by capturing water that would otherwise be lost to floods. But the cattlemen aren't buying it. Science, you see, is just another liberal ideology. As a Kane County commissioner put it succinctly, "Beavers are an environmentalist plot." Think of those dead beavers along North Creek that Sage Sorenson described to me as collateral damage in the ideological civil war now raging across the region.
 

You Can't Drink an F-35

The Grand Canyon Trust and a local citizens group, Boulder Community Alliance, have tried to fill the gap between the advisory group's clear intention and the state's hesitance to overrule obstructionist county commissioners and actually implement the plan. The Trust recruited local volunteers and trained them to assess canyon drainages using the best scientific criteria and methods available. Several streams were identified as candidates for beaver reintroduction.

Volunteers monitor and report on the few existing beaver settlements like the one being decimated in North Creek. Through education and advocacy they are building a constituency for putting beavers back on the land to do their job. They have faith that the benefits of beaver reintroduction will become obvious as re-habitation happens. When the time comes to move beavers into new streams, they will be ready.

The kind of homegrown resilience practiced by Sage Sorenson and thousands of other backyard conservationists gets a paltry piece of the taxpayer pie compared, say, to homeland security. I used to say that in the long run we'd be wiser to invest in restoring watersheds than putting a camera on every corner. As it happens, given the tenacious drought now spreading across the West and Southwest, the long run seems to be here, sooner than expected. Even the Pentagon now acknowledges that ecological catastrophe sows human turmoil and suffering that eventually blows back our way. For the cost of just one of the 2,400 F-35 fighter jets we are committed to buying at historic prices, we could restore the stressed Aquarius watershed.

But the beavers don't care what we do. They just do their own thing. They are like their human partners: persistent and oh so local.
 

Saving The World, Stick by Stick

Each ecosystem has its own particular dynamic. There are endless variables to understand. That's why conservation work is ultimately local. It focuses on improvements in this river and that forest, specific habitats and watersheds with specific conditions and a set of specific inhabitants and users.

The world we aim to save is a planet of mundane dirt, air, and water that, when woven together, somehow becomes a transcendent whole. It's a diverse universe of living plants and critters not well-suited for one big solution. Rather, it calls forth a million small solutions that add up, like the natural world itself, to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Or perhaps there are no parts at all, just participants.

Will introducing beavers onto wounded watersheds save the world? The answer is: yes. That and all the other acts of restoration, protection, and restraint, small and large, individual and collective, taken together over time. Sure, it's not the same as the US taxing carbon or China abandoning coal. Restoring a watershed doesn't curb the corporations that reduce communities to commodities. But in addition to the global goals we support, our responses to ecological crisis must be grounded in the places where we live, especially in the watersheds that nourish our bodies.

Rewilding tattered land is holistic because it sees and honors connectivity. It trades hubris for humility by acknowledging complexity and limitations. Its ultimate goal is landscape health and resilience, not the well-being of a small handful of stakeholders.

If we want to construct a healthy and resilient world for ourselves and our fellow creatures, we could do worse than look to the lowly beavers for hints on how it can be done. They build a vibrant world for themselves and so many others by weaving one small limb into another, stick by stick by stick.

Chip Ward, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded HEAL Utah and wrote Canaries on the Rim and Hope's Horizon. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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