Beavers: Climate Heroes
Environmental Article from


Wild Earth Guardians
February 2014

beaver dam climate change
Image from Jim Robertson
Exposing the Big Game /
Animals in the Wild

Beaver restoration, always important on its ecological merit, has increasing hydrologic urgency in light of climate change.

WildEarth Guardians is working to advance beaver restoration and protection on national forests and other public lands in the American West as a means to enhance riparian/wetland ecosystem resilience across the American West. Beaver restoration, always important on its ecological merit, has increasing hydrologic urgency in light of climate change.

Restored beaver populations, with their dams and ponds and the wetland and aquatic ecosystems associated with each, will serve not only to greatly enhance the persistence and resilience of many imperiled native animals and plants, but also increase water storage of streams that are undergoing dramatic changes in runoff patterns that endanger downstream municipal water supplies. Beavers have long been valued as ecosystem engineers who create wetland and aquatic habitats, maximizing biodiversity protection. More recent scientific research has found that beavers play a vital role in increasing riverine and riparian ecosystem resilience in the face of climate change.

Streams, rivers and wetlands in the American West are critically endangered and have been recognized as one of the most imperiled ecosystems in all of North America. Water diversions, ground water pumping, flood control structures, and livestock grazing and elk populations have each, individually and synergistically, damaged these ecologically and hydrologically critical habitats. Headwater streams and rivers, though far from having escaped degradation, remain the most resilient and ecologically intact of these once biologically rich ecosystems.

Enews-button_donate3.gifHowever climate change threatens headwaters in an unprecedented and nearly ubiquitous manner, especially in the American Southwest. Longer, more intense drought, earlier snowmelts and warmer temperatures will diminish or even dry up headwater streams and rivers. As a result, public water supplies of millions of residents across the West will be at risk, the plight of dozens of endangered species—including the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, the Northern leopard frog, Southwestern willow flycatcher and New Mexico meadow jumping mouse—will be worsened and recreational opportunities will be diminished. Enhancing the health and resilience of our headwaters at this critical juncture, while adaptation is still possible, necessitates more creative, systemic solutions.

We believe that restoring beavers—and their ecosystem-engineering role—to headwater streams throughout the American West, especially on public lands, is an efficient and effective way to enhance the resilience of these vital habitats. Beavers engineer ecosystems making stream and wetland communities much more diverse, resilient and widespread in their presence. Beaver dams not only reduce peak runoff during floods they also store water that can sustain flows during drought. Likewise beaver dams create ecosystem services that support more diverse populations of native fish, plants, birds, invertebrates and mammals, including numerous threatened and endangered species and numerous native trout species.

Once abundant on streams throughout the American West, beaver populations are significantly depressed from their historic highs of the late 1800’s due to historic and current trapping and stream habitat degradation. Today, state and federal beaver and land management policies— including trapping and public lands cattle grazing—continue to actively and passively undermine beaver recovery. Ironically, many states identify beavers as both varmints and ecologically significant. This reflects the modern and the antiquated views of the role and value of beavers.

Beaver trapping is still widespread on many public and private lands in the West, where private individuals trap to provide pelts in the international fur market. At the same time a federal agency within the Department of Agriculture has killed more than 100,000 beavers over the last five years. This agency rarely considers non-lethal approaches that would promote co-existence with beavers. Furthermore, widespread stream habitat degradation due to excessive grazing by domestic and native ungulates continues to be a limiting factor to the expansion of beaver populations. Interestingly, the loss of beaver is both a symptom and cause of stream degradation. Overgrazing of vegetation prevents their recovery and re-population while suitable streams without beaver function at levels much lower than their optimum. Habitat restoration and beaver reintroduction are key to the recovery and resilience of the streams.

The bottom line is that thousands of miles of suitable streams and rivers—both in the headwaters and at lower elevations—across the West, do not have and have not had ecologically functioning populations of beavers in more than a century. This ecological reality has diminished wetland and aquatic habitats, reduced stream flows, and imperiled native fish and wildlife.

WildEarth Guardians is taking a multi-pronged approach to beaver restoration.

  • We are collaborating with the Obama Administration on the development on a set of planning directives that will include beaver reestablishment on Forest Service lands as a climate adaptation strategy.
  • Collaborating with federal land managers and Native American tribes on beaver reestablishment pilot projects in key wild places.
  • Ending commercial and recreational beaver trapping on wild lands in the west.
  • Strategic litigation to stop the USDA Wildlife Services from killing beaver at the behest of agricultural interests.
  • Work with major western municipalities to support beaver reestablishment as a climate adaptation tool commensurate with enhancement of water resources.
  • Convene beaver management and reestablishment workshops in western states.
  • Assessing and promoting beaver habitat on federal lands in New Mexico - PDF.

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