Combatting Climate Change in the Arid West One Dam at a Time

There is profound power in two orange, iron incisors that never stop growing. Beaver teeth are as strong as steel, allowing them to chop down entire trees, haul around piles of debris, and build durable dams capable of completely transforming an environment. Beavers are known as ecosystem engineers and keystone species because of the numerous and beneficial services they offer to enhance ecology, hydrology, and biodiversity in a region.

Additionally, contemporary data is now suggesting that beavers play a critical role in combating drought, wildfires, wetland degradation, and other symptoms of climate change.

In the 2021 Colorado Beaver Summit, ecohydrologist Dr. Emily Fairfax explained just how effective beavers are at protecting our landscapes against drought and wildfires. Dam building is a beaver’s first task when settling a habitat and is key to nourishing the surrounding area. Their dams slow the movement of water, allowing it to saturate the region’s soils and even seep down into the earth and recharge groundwater. Dam building both creates a moister habitat for neighboring wildlife and vegetation and it also slows evaporation rates, transforming a narrow creek bed into a thriving wetland ecosystem.

Furthermore, beavers don’t just build dams; they also dig canals that connect surface water to the surrounding soils. Dr. Fairfax shares that this behavior is a survival mechanism, since beavers are quite awkward on land and prefer to travel by water as much as possible. Therefore, beavers dig trenches around their habitat that fill with water and allow them to swim from place to place. The unintended consequence of such behavior is that neighboring soil and vegetation are fed fresh water, as if hydrated by a drip irrigation system. A wetter, more diverse environment that extends beyond a beaver’s dam, results.

Beavers Manage Drought

In Colorado alone we are experiencing droughts that are degrading, narrowing, disturbing, and shortening the flow of many of our waterways. By helping to slow evaporation rates, recharge groundwater, and saturate the surrounding landscape, beavers could play an imperative role in protecting critical habitats from seasonal and prolonged drought. For example, in a four-year study, Dr. Fairfax’s team concluded that beaver ponds in Nevada kept riparian areas lush and green for both seasonal and prolonged 3-year drought cycles. In contrast, beaverless riparian areas on the same creek bed wilted, browned, and suffered from the extended dry periods.