Guest Essay by Kip Hansen
Oh those busy, busy beavers — aren’t they great? There’s the little guy in the corner of the photo, he and his pals built that dam that slowed the stream and produced a large shallow beaver pond. The American beaver is a keystone species on the North American continent in that modifies the environment in such a way that the overall ecosystem builds upon the change. The ponds, wetlands, and meadows formed by beaver dams increases bio-diversity and improves overall environmental quality.
This lovely active creature has been accused — in the NY Times Science /Climate section by Kendra “Gloom is My Beat” Pierre-Louis [seriously, that’s her real Twitter handle] — in an article with the anti-Darwinian title of “Beavers Emerge as Agents of Arctic Destruction”.
This is a marvelous piece of CAGW propaganda based on the AGU Poster presented by Ben Jones, Ken Tape and others at the recent 2017 AGU meeting in New Orleans. The poster made a splash in the press, including an article in the blog Earther with the amusing title of “Hordes of Beavers Are Invading Alaska’s Tundra”.
It is true that the beaver are making a comeback in the great northern reaches of North America. It is not, however news, and has been well discussed in the literature since as early as 2009.
Thomas Jung and others describe the situation:
“Jarema et al. (2009) demonstrated that beaver respond strongly to climate warming, both by expanding its range and by increasing its abundance at the core of its range. in terms of range expansion, beavers are similar to moose (Tape et al. 2016b) and Snowshoe hare (Tape et al. 2016a) in that they would be expected to benefit from shrubification of tundra environments be – cause they can forage extensively on shrubs (Aleksiuk 1970; Busher 1996), and they also use shrubs as building materials for their lodges and dams (Jung and Staniforth 2010). Given that shrubification of the Beaufort Coastal Plain is underway (Myers-Smith et al. 2011b; Naito and Cairns 2015; Tape et al. 2016a) and has likely increased habitat suitability for beavers, it is plausible that they could colonize waterbodies there, once barriers to colonization (i.e., mountain passes or the ocean) were successfully crossed.”
Those clever beavers somehow have managed to find their way to the spot marked on Canada’s Beaufort Plain — without any suitable habitat through which to travel.
The American beaver has a distinct connection to the history of European settlement of North America (United States and Canada). It was mostly because of a hat, this hat:
That’s the beaver top hat — all the craze in all of Europe in the 1600-1700s.
Between 1600 and 1800, Europe was in the thrall of the beaver hat, every man simply had to have a beaver hat. Women too wore hats made of beaver felt.
A single high quality hat required 2 to 3 beaver pelts according to a description of the process online here.
Hudson Bay Company records show that that between 1700 and 1770 alone, 21 million beaver hats were exported from England alone (not including domestic consumption of beaver hats nor beaver pelts also known to be exported to other European countries) — using up to 60 MILLION beaver pelts. This figure does not include the number of beaver pelts shipped to Europe by the French voyagers trading companies nor the America Fur Company founded by John Jacob Astor.
The end of the beaver hat craze did not come for many more years but eventually, by 1840, the silk top hat had replaced the beaver hat in Europe.
By that time, in North America, the beaver had been entirely trapped out of most of its range, dropping from populations as high as 60 million to an estimate as low as six million. Luckily, beavers live remote areas and rough terrain and by the mid-1800s, their value having dropped, they were saved from extinction — but only after they had been extirpated from most areas of North America, including the far north.
Since that time, the beaver has been slowly fighting its way back into the American landscape, often to the consternation of their humans neighbors. This is true where I live now, at the foot of the Catskill Mountains on the west side of the Central Hudson River Valley of New York, beavers dam up tiny streams on expensive land, flooding the flat places where owners wish to build half-million dollar homes.
Not everyone is angry with the little busy beavers though, the Lands Council considers the beaver “as a silver-bullet solution to our natural resource and environmental health concerns.”
NPR’s PBS’s NATURE program has a wonderful episode on beavers titled “Leave it to Beavers” in which are shown to be “as natural builders and brilliant hydro-engineers, beavers are being recruited to accomplish everything from finding water in a bone-dry desert to recharging water tables and coaxing life back into damaged lands.”
While the Tape and Jones AGU poster was mostly negative about the Arctic beavers and the effects they would have, Tape was more even handed when speaking to The Earther, which reports:
“Research shown at last week’s American Geophysical Union meeting revealed that everyone’s favorite rodent has been using sticks to build dams on the Alaska’s treeless tundra. The colonization is reshaping the geography of the north and could allow other animals to follow beavers into the brave new warming world.”
Why the beavers are moving into the tundra is an open question. Climate change may play a role, but it’s highly speculative at this point. Ken Tape, a University of Alaska, Fairbanks researcher working on the project, said it’s difficult to know if trappers hunted beavers off the tundra prior to the start of the aerial photography.
“Beavers may be changing the Arctic, but I’d bet there’d be as many (or more) winners as losers,” Ben Goldfarb, a journalist working on a book about beavers slated to come out next year, told Earther. “As other species move north with climate change, are arctic beavers actually helping them adapt?” Goldfarb suggested moose might be one species to benefit. Beaver ponds could allow more willows, a favorite food of moose, to prosper in the harsh landscape and give them the ability to branch out into new areas.”
I’m with Ben Goldfarb. The re-introduction of beavers into the landscapes of the far north do not represent destruction — on the contrary, they represent a restoration.
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Love to read and respond to your on-topic, civil comments.
What do you think?
Beavers as pesky, habitat-destroying interlopers? or
Beavers as habitat restoration agents?
Let me hear from you below.
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