The Original Geo-Engineers: How Beavers Can Help Save the Humans
(or How to Save the Iconic West from the Cow)
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.
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.
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 whythe 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 U.S. 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.