How the Eager Beaver Helps Protect the Planet
When we make the space for them to thrive, these wetland engineers support biodiversity, defend the landscape from fire and drought, and even promote carbon sequestration.
This blog was co-authored with Minah Choi, program assistant for NRDC’s Nature program.
Beavers are easily underestimated. Between their big buck teeth, their strangely shaped tails and their status as a “rodent,” many people overlook their remarkable engineering skills and view them as a nuisance. Their plump, round bodies belie a tenacious work ethic that leads to the creation of wetlands and healthy riverine habitat that benefit diverse plant and animal life. The talents of humble beavers also include fighting wildfire, drought, and climate change. As we seek out “natural climate solutions” that tap into the power of nature to help mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, it’s time we recognize beavers as curators of biodiversity, protectors of water, and climate allies.
Before the European colonization of North America, there were likely hundreds of millions of beavers. Many Indigenous communities revered them as keepers of water and some had strict policies against killing beavers. But the value of beaver pelts and oil—as fashionable fur hats and perfumes in Europe—lured trappers across the continent and beavers were nearly eliminated from the landscape as a result of heavy exploitation. In the process, our waterscapes became less complex, less resilient, and less able to support diverse plant, animal, and human life.
In today’s drying landscapes, climate-exacerbated hazards like wildfire and drought are ravaging the West—making the region less hospitable to people and animals. Western wetlands have been reduced to just two percent of the land surface, while supporting around 80 percent of the area’s biodiversity. In the search for solutions, beavers are gaining a reputation as inexpensive firefighters and water storage engineers. Beavers’ dam-building capabilities can replenish a dry floodplain, similar to how a sponge soaks up water. Recent research has shown how beaver ponds support wet soils and green vegetation–even during periods of drought—that are less likely to burn during a wildfire and more capable of bouncing back afterward. Beaver-created wetlands and riparian areas can also provide refuge for animals to escape to during a fire. Given that wildfires make up 5 to 10 percent of annual global CO2 emissions each year, the lush, wet fire breaks created by beavers could also be considered for their potential to impact wildfire spread and emissions, but only if we make space for beavers to thrive across the landscape.
In addition to their wildfire- and drought-mitigating capabilities, beaver-created wetlands and riparian areas promote ideal conditions for soils to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide—a major driver of climate change. Although wetlands hold an outstanding amount of carbon—storing 20 percent to 30 percent of the global soil carbon—they have been reduced to less than 8 percent of the earth’s land surface today. One recent review paper explored the relationship between beaver activity and carbon sequestration in the Northern Hemisphere and estimated that current beaver-created wetlands may be worth up to $75 million per year in greenhouse gas sequestration (depending on a variety of environmental factors). Other researchers have estimated that beaver ponds across the planet store up to 470,000 tons of carbon a year. There is much we have yet to understand about the net effect of beavers on carbon storage, but there is good reason to believe that the widespread restoration of beavers to the landscapes where they once thrived may have a beneficial impact on the global climate.
Despite the great potential of beavers to benefit human, plant, and animal life, relentless trapping still kills an untold number of beavers each year—likely in the hundreds of thousands. Too often, beavers are considered a nuisance or a resource to be exploited, with no consideration of the collateral damage that widespread beaver trapping poses to water storage, hazard mitigation, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity. Because beavers create and maintain critical wet habitats, many other animals, such as salmon, moose, songbirds, and amphibians, are impacted by their presence—or absence. With all that we’re learning about the diverse benefits of beavers, it’s clear we need to start working with—rather than against—these stewards of healthy waterways.