Mark Paul: Why are we killing our ecosystem engineers?

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This commentary is by Mark Paul of Starksboro, a native Vermonter and a former high school biology and environmental science teacher.

Beavers are our ecosystem engineers. Hydro engineers. They work for cambium, the layer under the bark that provides them with nutrients. And they work unremittingly until their dams are built, transforming deserts into lush, riparian zones, and small streams into wetlands, dramatically increasing biodiversity.

Yet many states, including Vermont, still allow “recreational trapping.” Recreational trapping is a euphemism for torturing and killing beavers. Body-gripping traps will typically hold beavers underwater until they suffocate, or, if on land, until the trapper shoots them in the head, assuming they are still alive. 

This isn’t 1787. In that year, Canada alone exported 139,509 beaver pelts. That’s 382 per day on average. Today, beaver pelts aren’t worth much. No one wears waterproof beaver hats anymore. 

This is 2023, a time when we are desperate to find ways to cope with climate change. Beavers can mitigate the effects of climate change, but only if we let them do their thing.

Beavers aren’t the kind of engineers that dig straight and deep. The bottoms of their ponds are furrowed and textured. Their dams create streams that meander, both above and below the dam. The blueprints they use are in their DNA.

And that’s good. Straight and deep, during a storm, creates a torrent of rushing water that builds up speed and power and leads to serious erosion and flooding downstream. Beaver impoundments allow water to overflow at all points, releasing water slowly, increasing irrigation to surrounding areas, wideninging the green zone, and cooling the land. This is good for fish, frogs, salamanders, birds and every mammal in the area. The predictable water source will even bring in a few new animals. 

Before beavers were extirpated from much of this planet, the landscape was quite different in many regions around the globe. For example, in the United States, the Mississippi River Basin, from the Ohio River in New York and Pennsylvania, to the Yellowstone River in Montana, to the Red River in Texas, to the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana, was a tapestry of marshes, swamps, rivers and streams, ponds and floodplains; a vast, interconnected system of wetlands. All because of beavers. 

We killed all the beavers and filled in much of our remaining wetlands. Even under normal climate conditions — which clearly we are no longer experiencing — flooding was and is much worse without the water-buffering capacity of beaver habitat. But today, our rainfall is typically all or nothing. We have created the perfect conditions for massive floods with immense erosion, catastrophic damage to our homes and infrastructure, and in the end, little to no relief from drought. The water simply cascades over dry, compacted soil and ends up in a lake or ocean.

Everyone, everywhere, should be thinking about ways to hold on to water when it rains. Grab it while you can. You may not see it again for quite some time. 

We need more retention ponds, more rain barrels, more catch basins that take water to a community reservoir. We have to think outside the old paradigm. We have to slow the water down and hold on to it. We have to think and behave like beavers.

Water is never static. You probably know from experience that water goes everywhere and gets into everything. The water in a beaver pond is no different. It is moving up and moving down, evaporating and percolating. You just can’t see it happen. 

Wherever you have a beaver pond, there is constant recharging of springs, groundwater and aquifers. That alone should be a good reason to invite beavers onto your property. 

Beaver habitat can act as a firebreak during a forest fire and a refuge for wildlife trying to escape the flames and heat, especially if the site is active. Beaver ponds, and the meadows and wetlands they create, are good at sequestering carbon, but abandoned ponds sequester far less than active sites. 

Wherever they go, beavers will improve the quality of drinking water and increase available water for irrigation, thereby making soil healthier for agriculture. Good reasons to not kill our engineers.

The fur trade lasted from around 1600 to 1900. Before the fur trade, there may have been as many as 400 million beavers in North America. Today there might be 15 million. 

In 1905, New York reintroduced five Canadian beavers into the Adirondack Park. Connecticut, which by 1842 had no more beavers, began bringing them back in 1914. By 1900, the population of beavers in Eurasia was down to approximately 1,200. The Fur Trade was a global industry and beaver pelts were often the currency.

Many European countries, including Great Britain, Ireland, Scotland and France, have reintroduced beavers. In some cases, the releases are part of a large rewilding effort, but reasons for these introductions are varied. Whether for increasing biodiversity or simply from a sense of obligation — to return them to where they once were — the benefits will far outweigh the disadvantages. 

Everything in life has a tradeoff, and so it will be with beavers. But with a little work and patience, we can coexist. People will also have to be educated about the benefits of wetlands, and see them as more than just insect breeding grounds.

To reintroduce beavers, usually all you have to do is let them loose. Beavers know what to do when there is good habitat around. Sometimes it is a bit more interesting than that. 

In Spain, a group of conservationists released 18 beavers on the Ebro River in the north. The beavers had come from Bavaria. This was 2003. The release was illegal. When the government found out, they attempted to recapture all the beavers. They caught some, but the beavers had been given too much of a head start. A population had been established. By 2018, the European Union ruled that the beavers were protected by law. Today there are at least 1,000 beavers in Spain. This population will eventually spread into Portugal, one of the few remaining European countries that have no beavers. 

A well-known beaver reintroduction took place in 1948, in Idaho. State Fish & Game had a lot of nuisance beavers to deal with. Elmo Heter had an idea. Why not relocate them to a remote wilderness area that didn’t have any beavers? There were no roads leading in and, as it turned out, beavers and mules don’t get along, so they needed another way to transport the beavers. Heter knew there were World War II surplus parachutes, so why not drop the beavers from a plane?

He devised a box that opened upon impact. Each box held a pair of beavers. With a little practice, they made it work, and 76 beavers were parachuted into the Chamberlain Basin. Today this area is called the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, and is the only protected roadless forest in the lower 48 states.

So why are we killing our engineers? Vermont Fish & Wildlife will say it’s best management practices to trap and kill beavers. Vermont Fish & Wildlife is a throwback to the days of men-only clubs, where all the decisions were made in smoke-filled rooms, and no one questioned them. 

Our governor appoints his cronies to the board. No one else gets in. They revel in their arcane data. They kill in the name of science. The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Club, and all its biased members, though supported by taxpayers, have no checks and balances.


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