At 1st Midwest Beaver Summit, role of the hefty rodents praised in wetland restoration, climate change fight

As the nation faces a future of increasing flooding, drought and wildfires, millions of 60-pound rodents stand by, ready to assist.

Beavers can transform parched fields into verdant wetlands and widen rivers and streams in ways that not only slow surging floodwater, but store it for times of drought.

Still not impressed? In 2020, three raging wildfires in Colorado — including one with walls of flame 70 feet high — effectively bowed to the flat-tailed dam-builders, according to Emily Fairfax, an assistant professor of physical geography at the University of Minnesota at Twin Cities.

The fast-moving “megafires” left the water-saturated areas around beaver-occupied rivers largely unharmed, while beaver-free river banks suffered extensive damage.

“We desperately need to build more climate-resilient landscapes. We need to engineer something. We need to figure out a better solution,” Fairfax said. “And what I want to ask everyone to consider, is, what about nature’s engineers?”

And yes, she said, she was referring to the beaver.

Fairfax, who spoke earlier this week at the first-ever Midwest Beaver Summit, is part of a broader “beaver restoration” movement that has gained ground in recent years with ecologists in Colorado using simplified human-made beaver dams to encourage the animals to recolonize waterways, and California passing a new law encouraging nonlethal approaches to human-beaver conflicts.

There’s a popular 2018 book, “Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter” by environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb. There are conferences: BeaverCON on the East Coast and State of the Beaver on the West Coast.

And beaver advocates — sometimes called “beaver believers” in a nod to their starry-eyed intensity — have gained a foothold in Illinois, where Glenview resident Rachel Siegel formed the nonprofit Illinois Beaver Alliance in 2021.

“Beavers are having a moment,” Siegel said.

At the first day of the Midwest Beaver Summit, which is being held virtually and will continue Sept. 20, speakers extolled the beaver’s ability to create healthier and more resilient ecosystems, at a time when climate change is expected to create new challenges.

The conference, which drew an audience of over 300, was presented by the Illinois Beaver Alliance, Superior Bio-Conservancy and Heartland Rewilding, and sponsored by Openlands, the Land Conservancy of McHenry County and the Society for Ecological Restoration. Co-hosts included Friends of the Chicago River and the Beaver Institute.

In the Midwest, the climate is predicted to get wetter in winter, with a significant increase in heavy precipitation and flooding, Fairfax said. Summers, in contrast, are expected to be very dry, making the region susceptible to wildfires.

“We cannot have our (forests), our grasslands, our prairies, go up in smoke. We cannot watch as the water level drops lower and lower and lower in our lakes, our ponds and our reservoirs, and we cannot tolerate our cities, our communities, being consumed by massive flood waves,” Fairfax said. “This is our future though, if we don’t build more climate-resistant landscapes.”

Fortunately, she said, we have beavers.

When beavers build dams, water slows and flows out beyond a stream or river’s banks to the soil of the flood plain, and when the beavers need more wood to expand the dam, they dig canals that radiate further out into the flood plain. The canals fill with water, effectively irrigating the land, and reactivating a wetlands ecosystem.

The result is a complex mosaic of habitats benefiting a wide range of species, as well as natural flood control, Fairfax said.

In times of flooding, a big surge of water can rip apart the banks of beaver-free streams and rivers. But when a surge hits a beaver-engineered flood plain, the water slows, spreads out over a greater area, and seeps into the damp soil, which absorbs and stores it.

The stored water, in turn, helps insulate the flood plain against drought during a hot, dry summer, Fairfax said, keeping plants lush and green, rather than dry and ready to go up in smoke.

That’s good for the vast array of plants and animals that live in beaver-engineered wetlands, and it’s bad news for wildfires.

Fairfax showed images of natural areas ravaged by fire: Again and again, the water-soaked beaver habitat avoided the worst damage.

In data she collected on three 2020 Colorado wildfires, 40% of nonriver areas were found to be largely unburned. That figure rose to only 52% for river areas without beavers. But in the beaver-dammed river areas, the figure was an impressive 89%.

“Beavers create fire-resistant patches in the landscape,” Fairfax said. That provides refuge for other animals, including fish, and preserves habitat that can aid in the ecosystem’s post-wildfire recovery.

In Colorado, beaver-driven ecological restoration is in full swing, Goldfarb said at the conference, with human-made dams called Beaver Dam Analogs helping to prepare degraded landscapes for beaver reintroduction.

Think of the Beaver Dam Analogs as “kick-starters” — fairly basic dams that allow beavers to take over and build more sophisticated structures, Goldfarb said.

“This kind of Beaver Dam Analog construction is happening at an enormous scale in Colorado,” Goldfarb said. “There are certainly projects that have built hundreds of structures and restored many, many miles of degraded streams. I have seen a pretty spectacular beaver response as a result of that.”

Another speaker, Leila Philip, author of “Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America,” said she was encouraged by recent policy work, including California’s statewide initiative prioritizing nonlethal responses to problematic beaver activities, such as tree-chomping and using dams to raise water levels.

“There are some important shifts that are moving the ‘beaver believer’ movement a little bit more toward the mainstream, in a really significant way,” she said. In one example, Oregon — the Beaver State — is considering whether to remove the “predator” status of beavers, making it harder for landowners to kill the animals.

“We need to look at how to address beaver management in all the different states, which right now varies widely, so for example here in Connecticut, you can’t relocate beavers,” Philip said. “Even if I had a problem beaver and I had a place to put it, I can’t move it without such a special permit (that) it’s not really feasible.”

Challenges remain in Illinois, Siegel said, but there are encouraging precedents for beaver restoration in other parts of the country.

“What we’re trying to do is move the needle here,” Siegel said. “We’re trying to change the culture.”