FERN Q&A: Beaver-created wetlands could be a farmer’s best friend

Ben Goldfarb is one of the most eloquent and powerful storytellers writing today about environmental issues in America. His two stories for FERN, The Codfather, a rollicking tale of fraud and regulatory breakdown in the New England commercial fishery, and The Endling, about the final days of the vaquita, a shy porpoise that lives only in the Gulf of California, were among the best pieces we’ve published. In his new book, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, he makes the case that this widely vilified rodent, which was trapped nearly out of existence in the U.S., is not only making a comeback but could play a major role in mitigating the effects of climate change. Brent Cunningham, FERN’s executive editor, interviewed him about the book via email.

Given how thoroughly erased they’ve been from modern America, I would bet that most people’s idea of the beaver is connected to various cartoons. How big an obstacle is this disconnect to the larger effort of not only restoring the beaver but embracing its multifaceted environmental reclamation work?

We’re an increasingly urban nation, often disconnected from the rural areas where our food is produced and our wildlife, beavers included, dwells. To some extent, though, that’s changing. Just as the slow food movement has reconnected Americans with farmers’ markets and urban farms, beavers are gradually reentering our consciousness. They’re hardy critters, after all, capable of thriving in some pretty developed landscapes so long as we don’t actively kill them. Some of my favorite stories in the book are about urban beavers: the colony that moved into a wetland next to a Walmart in Logan, Utah, for instance, or the rodents’ return to the Bronx River — New York City’s first beavers in 200 years! We’re a country with a growing beaver population and, I think, a growing beaver awareness.

And with that awareness, I’d like to imagine, comes an appreciation for how important beavers are to our ecosystems. When beavers built dams and created ponds in a stream in downtown Martinez, California, wildlife from otters to herons quickly rode in on their coattails. Spend a few minutes at a beaver pond, and you can’t fail to appreciate how much life these creatures support.

You spend a fair amount of time in the book trying to explain our longstanding vilification of this rodent. What struck me in reading all that was that the beaver challenges the fundamental human need to control the environment, to bend it to our will. Do you agree with that?

Absolutely. We humans, after all, like our rivers straitjacketed and obedient, our dams poured with smooth concrete, our crops planted in parallel rows. Beavers, by contrast, create what looks to us like chaos: creeks that leap their banks and create new side channels, jumbles of sticks everywhere, marshy meadows punctuated by dead trees. You often hear people complain that beavers “destroy” habitat — that their predilection for drowning trees and impounding streams is a form of eco-sabotage. But what looks like destruction is actually a force for renewal. Woodpeckers love nesting in beaver-killed snags, for instance, and we know that beaver ponds are incredible juvenile fish factories. We need to recognize that allowing beavers to take over and “manage” certain areas is a viable restoration strategy — that, as some beaver scientists put it, we ought to “let the rodent do the work.”

Related to both these previous questions, isn’t part of the implication of your book that we — humans — will need to reimagine certain ideas about the “outdoors” if the beaver is to return in a significant way? Like what a great trout stream looks like? Maybe even what a ranch or a farm looks like?

Incorporating beavers in agricultural landscapes is, to my mind, one of the most exciting frontiers in water management. Take James Rogers, the manager of the Winecup-Gamble Ranch in northeast Nevada. For decades, the ranch’s irrigation water was supplied from a reservoir behind a giant human-built dam — the kind of centralized water infrastructure solution that pervades the American West. Last winter, though, the dam washed out and the reservoir drained.

Most ranchers would have ordered it rebuilt, but James is a savvy, progressive guy, and he recognized that the ranch’s sizable beaver population could be part of the answer. Instead of rebuilding a single enormous (and risky) dam, he’s hiring a consulting firm to construct a number of smaller wetlands all over the property that will be populated and maintained by the resident beavers. Rather than putting all his eggs in a single basket, he’s diversifying his approach to water storage — with the help of a rodent. I so admire that humility and vision, that willingness to work with, rather than against, the natural world.

If that’s the case, it’s worth noting that even some scientists who study these things have had a hard time doing that, right?

One of the challenges of studying aquatic ecosystems in this country is that we don’t have great baselines. By the time we started collecting data about how streams function, beavers — and the hundreds of millions of dams and ponds that once filled our waterways — had long since been eliminated by fur trappers. Our conception of streams thus came of age in a post-beaver era. Now that beavers are returning, allowing us to study their environmental impacts, we’re recognizing that many areas probably looked and behaved very differently than we realized. For example, many seasonal arroyos in the Southwest may well have been perennial creeks back when this country was Beaverland.

You argue that, contrary to conventional wisdom, a beaver-shaped ecosystem can coexist with man’s recreational imperatives — particularly fishing. How will that work?

You’re right that lots of smaller trout streams are also primo beaver habitat. Many fishermen, and even fish biologists, fear beavers — that their dams will block fish migrations, for instance, or that their ponds will smother spawning beds in silt. Scientific research, however, has repeatedly proven that beavers are fantastic for fish production; in one study, beaver restoration improved the survival of threatened steelhead by more than 50 percent. The evolutionary connection between beavers and fish is so intuitive and deep that I’ve seen it boiled down to a bumper sticker: “Beavers Taught Salmon to Jump!”

If you were speaking to a room of ranchers and farmers, what would say to convince them the stop viewing the beaver as “irrigation-clogging, tree-felling, field-flooding menaces”?

 Rather than doing the talking myself (after all, I’m just a lowly journalist), I’d introduce them to someone whose experience they’d respect: say, Jon Griggs, another brilliant Nevada rancher. Griggs is a former beaver skeptic. When the critters turned up in Susie Creek, the stream that runs through his grazing allotment, in 2003, his inclination was to kill them. But he let them live, and was soon happy he did. Beavers, and their dams, turned his stream into a sprawling cattail marsh, creating 20 additional acres of open water, raising water tables two feet, and increasing plant production by more than 30 percent. That wasn’t just good for the ecosystem, it was great for his bottom line. When drought hit in 2012, nearby ranchers had to pay a bunch of money to truck water to their thirsty livestock. But thanks largely to beavers, and the ponds and marshes they’d created, Griggs was able to water his livestock without expensive trucks. He’s become a great spokesman for the power of beavers, and he’s convinced neighboring ranchers to embrace these animals, too. If anyone’s going to change the fate of beavers in America, it’s guys like Jon Griggs — authentic agricultural community members with hard-won experience.

How, for instance, do beavers help streams survive drought?

It’s simple, really: By building dams and creating ponds, beavers slow water down, keeping it on the landscape and preventing it from running off and being lost to agricultural users (not to mention fish and other animals). Beavers are great at holding back water, but their dams are semi-permeable, so water is still trickling downstream to farms and ranches — except now it’s being meted out more gradually, so that streams stay wetter into summer and fall. I’ve heard countless stories about seasonal streams becoming perennial after the arrival of beavers.

It’s also important to remember that the surface water stored by beavers — the visible pond — is only part of the story. The weight of the pond also presses water into the ground, recharging aquifers and raising the water table. One study estimated that for every gallon that beavers store in their ponds, they’re capturing five to ten times more underground. When you think about how badly we’ve overdrawn many groundwater supplies, you start to appreciate how these animals might be able to help.

Nitrate runoff from ag operations is a huge problem, contaminating drinking water, killing aquatic life, and creating algal blooms and dead zones. You have a short passage about how wetlands, like those created by beavers, filter out nitrates and other runoff from agricultural operations. How realistic is it, given the current state of affairs in our country, that a beaver-based strategy for dealing with runoff can get a foothold and grow?

Well, I’m a congenital optimist, but I think it’s entirely realistic! We already know that wetlands capture runoff, and that beavers create wetlands; according to one study, beaver ponds are capable of filtering out as much as 45 percent of nitrates in southern New England watersheds. The limiting factor for wetlands restoration in this country is obvious: money. But beavers, of course, conduct wetlands restoration for free (and, even better, without requiring permits). Why not, then, learn to better coexist with a creature who will contribute unpaid labor to our greatest water quality crisis? Once more for the people in the back: Let the rodent do the work!