I’m worried about the beaver. Here’s why.
Imagine a network of brooks and rivulets meandering through a mosaic of shrubby, sometimes boggy, marshland, purifying water and absorbing high volumes of flow during storm events. This was a typical low-gradient stream in the valleys of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed in the days prior to the arrival of the trans-Atlantic human migrant. Then, a frenzy of trapping, tree chopping, mill building, and stream channelization accompanied the east to west waves of settlement across the region. The first casualty: the indispensable lowlands manager, the North American Beaver (Castor canadensis).
Without the widespread presence of beavers, stream ecology quickly collapsed. Pristine waterways were all at once gone, as were many of their floral and faunal inhabitants. It was a streams-to-sewers saga completed in just one generation. So, if we really want to restore our creeks and rivers, maybe we need to give the North American Beaver some space and respect. After all, we as a species have yet to build an environmentally friendly dam and have yet to fully restore a wetland to its natural state. The beaver is nature’s irreplaceable silt deposition engineer and could be called the 007 of wetland construction—doomed upon discovery, it must do its work without being noticed, but nobody does it better.
Few landowners are receptive to the arrival of North American Beavers as guests or neighbors. This is indeed unfortunate. Upon discovery, beavers, like wolves, coyotes, sharks, spiders, snakes, and so many other animals, evoke an irrational negative response from the majority of people. This too is quite unfortunate, and foolish.
North American Beavers spend their lives and construct their dams, ponds, and lodges exclusively within floodplains—lands that are going to flood. Their existence should create no conflict with the day to day business of human beings. But humans can’t resist encroachment into beaver territory. Because they lack any basic understanding of floodplain function, people look at these indispensable lowlands as something that must be eliminated in the name of progress. They’ll fill them with soil, stone, rock, asphalt, concrete, and all kinds of debris. You name it, they’ll dump it. It’s an ill-fated effort to eliminate these vital areas and the high waters that occasionally inundate them. Having the audacity to believe that the threat of flooding has been mitigated, buildings and poorly engineered roads and bridges are constructed in these “reclaimed lands”. Much of the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed has now been subjected to over three hundred years-worth of these “improvements” within spaces that are and will remain—floodplains. Face it folks, they’re going to flood, no matter what we do to try to stop it. And as a matter of fact, the more junk we put into them, the more we displace flood waters into areas that otherwise would not have been impacted! It’s absolute madness.
By now we should know that floodplains are going to flood. And by now we should know that the impacts of flooding are costly where poor municipal planning and negligent civil engineering have been the norm for decades and decades. So aren’t we tired of hearing the endless squawking that goes on every time we get more than an inch of rain? Imagine the difference it would make if we backed out and turned over just one quarter or, better yet, one half of the mileage along streams in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed to North American Beavers. No more mowing, plowing, grazing, dumping, paving, spraying, or building—just leave it to the beavers. Think of the improvements they would make to floodplain function, water quality, and much-needed wildlife habitat. Could you do it? Could you overcome the typical emotional response to beavers arriving on your property and instead of issuing a death warrant, welcome them as the talented engineers they are? I’ll bet you could.