Beavers are “ecosystem engineers” and fight climate change, too.

Learn more about why beavers are called a keystone species.

ralf82 | Pixabay.com

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Conall Rubin-Thomas
Conall Rubin-Thomas

Former Digital Campaign Associate, Environment America

The signs are instantly recognizable: partially chewed trees, pointy stumps and sprawling collections of sticks and logs in the middle of waterways. These all signal the presence of beavers, the plump, semi-aquatic critters that were once nearly hunted to extinction

Established wildlife laws and reintroduction brought their numbers to stable levels, but they still remain a fraction of what they once were. Further recovery of beaver populations is crucial.

Because they significantly alter, manage and even improve the areas around them, beavers have earned the title of “ecosystem engineers.” Their work enhances the surrounding landscape and ecosystems, making these critters some of the most important, not to mention adorable, stewards of nature. Here are five ways beavers help the environment. 

Beavers help control water flow.

You might assume that since beaver dams block water, they must cause floods, but that’s far from the case. Dams are penetrable structures that slow water flow, resulting in less erosion and flooding than undammed, fast flowing water. Dams physically store water on land where it soaks into the soil and initiates plant growth, able to turn bone-dry areas into bountiful wetlands. If you repeatedly visit beaver habitat in different seasons, you can see the transformations that take place thanks to their dams. A landscape often looks completely different from even just a few months prior.

Beavers improve water quality.

Rainwater runoff from artificial surfaces washes toxins into waterways, threatening aquatic ecosystems. Wetlands surrounding beaver dams act like kidneys by removing pollutants from water, effectively cleaning it. As dams decrease water flow, nutrient-rich sediment usually swept away by the current instead sinks and collects on the bottom. This abundance of minerals filters and breaks down harmful materials like pesticides and leaves areas downstream of dams healthier and less polluted than upstream.

A beaver swims in Soda Butte Creek in Yellowstone National Park.

Beaver activity creates more habitat for other wildlife.

Since beaver dams slow water flow, the original path is altered as the water meanders over additional ground, creating more wetlands where other species thrive. Important plants that feed animals and provide for people see their numbers increase over 33% in beaver wetlands, while birds nest on riverbanks, fish swim about and mammals forage for food in these natural havens. In fact, 25% of species living in these wetlands fully depend on beaver activity for survival.

A video from Utah Division of Wildlife Resources about beavers creating more habitat for other wildlife.

Beavers stop wildfires.

Increasing wildfires destroy nature and emit greenhouse gasses, but beaver activity can hold the devastating flames at bay. Wetlands made by beaver dams concentrate water and moisturize the landscape, making it harder for fires to spread as potential fuel becomes harder to burn. Wildlife can shelter in these wet sanctuaries, safe from an encroaching blaze. Beavers might not drive red trucks or slide down poles, but they make an excellent fire department nonetheless.

Joe Wheaton, 2018 | CC-BY-4.0
Baugh Creek and Hailey Creek in Idaho, 5 weeks after the 2018 Sharps Fire. Beaver activity left a thriving green stretch through the scorched landscape.

Beavers help us fight climate change.

The primary driver behind climate change is the massive amount of carbon human activity pumps into the atmosphere. The more we emit, the more it builds up, but beavers help reduce its accumulation as their wetlands absorb and store the greenhouse gas. Globally, beaver wetlands hold 470,000 tons of carbon each year and perform carbon-capture work worth tens of millions of dollars. Restoring beavers to their natural habitats and widespread numbers can lead to further carbon absorption as the animals proliferate, construct dams and establish more wetlands. More beavers mean more wetlands, which mean less atmospheric carbon, a win-win-win scenario.

SteveRaubenstine | Pixabay.com

The incredible feats beavers perform should not be understated, whether it’s their beneficial environmental work or ability to transform landscapes. As the world’s foremost natural ecosystem engineers, they play crucial roles in managing nature unlike any other animal. You can celebrate these incredible critters on International Beaver Day every April 7. The next time you’re hiking and come across those telltale bites on trees or piles of sticks, be sure to thank a beaver for all they do in supporting the natural world by just being their busy little selves. 

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Authors

Conall Rubin-Thomas

Former Digital Campaign Associate, Environment America

Steve Blackledge

Senior Director, Conservation America Campaign, Environment America

Steve directs Environment America’s efforts to protect our public lands and waters and the species that depend on them. He led our successful campaign to win full and permanent funding for our nation’s best conservation and recreation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He previously oversaw U.S. PIRG’s public health campaigns. Steve lives in Sacramento, California, with his family, where he enjoys biking and exploring Northern California.

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