Outdoors Sustainability

Sustainability: Beavers Are Our Ecosystem Engineers

Sustainability: Beavers

By Paula Musto

In Asheville, we have Beaver Lake, Beaverdam and Beaver Ridge—just a few namesakes of the inventive animal once prized for its luxurious, high-value pelts. But how much do most of us really know about the furry animal that trappers and traders nearly wiped out in the heyday of the fur trade?

Probably not a lot. But, as wildlife experts know, the value of the American beaver extends far beyond its former commodity status. Beavers have a profound impact on our environment; in fact, it is said that these critters are second only to humans in their ability to transform their habitat.

Lumberjack. Surveyor. Engineer. Builder. “Beavers have all the tools and know-how to instinctively build dams,” says Bill Miller, a retired engineer who has studied the beaver population along Bill Moore Creek in Candler. The marshy area west of Asheville, said to be one of the largest wetlands in the Asheville Basin, is home to colonies of what are the largest rodents in North America.

Impressively hard workers, beavers instinctively build massive structures with logs, branches and mud, blocking streams and turning fields into the large ponds that these nocturnal animals love. In doing so, they also create watery habitats for fish, turtles, frogs, birds, ducks and other mammals.

And while the human footprint often means intrusive development that lays waste to natural environs, beaver activity benefits both wildlife and its human neighbors. Beaver dams elevate water table and improve water quality by serving as natural filters that reduce downstream sedimentation and improve water clarity. The dams also slow water velocity in rivers and streams, which helps minimize erosion.

“Beavers can be our partners in developing effective water control strategies that encourage and encompass natural environmental processes, as opposed to the invasive and unattractive alternatives,” Miller says.

But can the idea that beavers are friends not foes be appreciated by homeowners who do not always enjoy gnawed and toppled trees in their landscaped yards? “It’s a love-hate relationship,” says Carlton Burke, the former exhibit curator of the WNC Nature Center who now teaches wildlife classes at the North Carolina Arboretum. “But there are a lot of ways to coexist with beavers.”

As anyone familiar with Bucky Beaver toothpaste commercials knows, the critter has famously large front teeth that never stop growing, so they are not worn down by chewing on wood. These enormous incisors are constantly in use gnawing trees and branches needed to build dams and their homes, called lodges.

For homeowners wary of landscaping damage, Burke says, there is an easy solution. Wherever there is beaver activity, he advises placing a collar—a ring of wire mesh, three-feet high—around the targeted trees. The beaver will look elsewhere for timber.

“A beaver pond should be seen as a good thing; it creates an explosion of wildlife that is valuable to our ecosystem,” Burke says. “Perhaps, it’s up to us to realize that there are places beavers should be and those places are not the best spots for residential development.”

John Huckabee, veterinary program manager for PAWS (Progressive Animal Welfare Society), a wildlife center in Washington State, agrees. “As wild animals attempt to survive and thrive in an increasingly human-dominated landscape, the possibilities for conflicts with humans are endless.”

Huckabee suggests we should look at the larger picture and be mindful of the impact of every species on others, including humans. “We are all so interconnected,” he says. “It’s important to recognize the benefit of all species and their value to us.”

Until the late 1800s, trapping of beavers and trading in their pelts was an important part of the economy in many parts of the US, including North Carolina. These days, trapping of beavers is used only to control their population, which has rebounded since the early 20th century, allowing beavers to return to the watery areas they had previously abandoned.

The comeback has been so great that beaver colonies have achieved impressive feats. In Canada, multiple generations of beavers built what is believed to be the world’s largest beaver dam, an astounding 2,800-foot long structure so huge that it is visible from space.

Today, beavers can be found throughout Western North Carolina in rivers, streams and marshes. In Buncombe County, the nonprofit Appalachian Wildlife Refuge periodically receives injured or orphaned beavers in need of care.

“Humans are beginning to understand that we rely on animals for our benefit and well-being,” says Winslow Umberger, head of outreach for Appalachian Wild. “Biodiversity is key and so, too, are the roles each animal performs in keeping our ecosystems healthy and the environment in balance.”

Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wild, a nonprofit whose mission is to help injured or orphaned wildlife, support WNC’s wildlife rehabilitation network and provide wildlife conservation education. This year, more than 2,000 animals will be admitted at its animal care facility in Candler.

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