The threat and reality of wildfires is alive and well here in the West. As droughts continue, concerns over loss of property, lives, wildlife and life as we know it permeates the air come fire season. Millions of people have been left without electricity as companies shut off power amidst threats of high winds in areas prone to fires. What many people don’t realize is that fires are an essential aspect of the ecological patterns of many ecosystems. When these ecosystems change due to human impact, fires turn from a natural necessity to a life threatening disaster.
In nature’s finely tuned intelligence, every moving part plays a role in the maintenance and evolution of this beautiful planet. A key player in Wild Carrot Herbals’ home state of Oregon is the brave, boisterous beaver. Beavers are considered a keystone species, meaning that they play a crucial role in maintaining the ecosystem around them.
At the mention of beavers, you may get images of big buck teeth, and mountainous dams. These furry friends are the original keepers of the waterways of the west. For millions of years, they have worked tirelessly to create and maintain water reserves, wetlands, and steady streams. By doing what they do best, beavers help filter out water impurities, increase environmental diversity and provide water for all inhabitants in their area and much further downstream.
So what role do beavers play in fire ecology? By creating dams to support the burrows and lodges they build for themselves, they also increase the water in the surrounding areas. These ponds essentially create a firebreak, which keeps wildfires from spreading. They also raise the ground water level, and increase the portion of creekside areas that stay green all summer. Naturally, areas with more water don’t burn as easily. Fewer beavers means less wetlands which means more widespread fires.
Firefighters, understanding the importance of beavers, utilize water from ponds they have created to help in containment efforts when fires break out. In examining the aftermath of large fires, ecologists have noted that the only areas that didn’t burn within a fire zone were often the wetlands created by, you guessed it, beavers.
The threat to beavers is nothing new. In the 1700’s, with the spread of colonization and an increase in population in the Pacific Northwest, a growing threat was brought to beavers’ wellbeing. Fur trappers began trapping beavers for their furry hides and populations were decimated. A further influx of people during the Gold Rush led to even more habitat destruction. They were also hunted for castoreum, a brown slime secreted from their castor sacs, which lie under their tails. Castoreum, with its musky vanilla scent, is sometimes used as a natural flavoring in processed foods. Please rest assured that we don't use it in our skin care!
As beaver populations rapidly declined, scientists mistakenly concluded that beavers were not able to thrive in these ecosystems, without taking into account the effects of the fur and gold rushes. Despite the knowledge carried by Native American tribes, the importance of beavers on water and fire maintenance continues to be misunderstood as these beautiful creatures and their habitat are still under threat.
It’s not just humans that benefit from these ambitious animals. Salmon, birds, trout, elk, insects and countless other critters depend on the waterways and habitats created and maintained by beavers. Collete Adkins, who fights for beavers through her work as a biologist and attorney, explains that “Beavers are nature’s engineers, building dams and ponds that help endangered fish and frogs. By protecting them, we’ll allow beaver ponds to be safe havens for other wildlife.” So how do we protect them amidst blatant disregard for how necessary they are?
Today, Wildlife Services, a federal program, with an incredibly misleading name, contributes to the widespread hunting of many wildlife creatures including beavers. Thanks to the efforts of organizations like The Center for Biological Diversity, the Wildlife Services program has come under scrutiny, and has faced a growing demand for reform and the cessation of the killing of certain species like beavers.
It’s clear to see the key role beavers play in fire maintenance throughout the west, and how their declining population has magnified the growing threat of wildfires.
The future of human civilization depends on our ability to learn to integrate living in a modern society with the natural world around us. Understanding where we can make sacrifices for the sake of convenience, and how our impact affects the rest of the beings inhabiting this planet.
So what can we do? Familiarize yourself with local programs that are making efforts to restore beaver populations and other keystone species. Spread the word about just how vital they are to our ecosystems so that others can see how the threat of large fires can be mitigated by beavers. Pay attention to government programs that are being implemented to harm or help our furry friends and see what influence you can have by contacting your local representatives.
Curious about getting to know beavers a little better? Here are some fun facts about this incredible critter:
- At 40-60 pounds, beavers are the largest rodent species in North America.
- Their beautiful, dense, fur coats insulates them, allowing them to swim in frigid waters.
- These monogamists mate for life. Living in small family units, the oldest offspring help to care for younger ones.
- The average lifespan of a beaver is 10 years.
- In the 1940’s, in an effort to redistribute beaver populations, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game dropped beavers from airplanes into backcountry spots using crates protected by parachutes.