The beaver was once a prized species that adorned coats of arms (and today, our five-cent coin) and brought fur traders to Canada by the boatload. But today—although the beaver is more plentiful than at the height of the fur trade—its star has faded. The bucktoothed rodent is now known for flooding roads, toppling trees and making a nuisance of itself. A new study could change that. According to Glynnis Hood, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta, the beaver population could help mitigate the effects of global warming, including drought. “You add beaver, and you get more [open] water. They create wetlands,” she explains.
In one of the most extensive studies of its kind, Hood looked at Parks Canada documentation on the beaver population at Elk Island National Park (just outside Edmonton). Because the species was reintroduced there in 1941 after being wiped out by overhunting, she could compare the area’s wetlands before and after the beaver’s return. Crucially, Hood was able to observe the record-breaking drought that scorched the Prairies in 2002. That summer, she says, beavers spent more time digging deep channels to ensure their lodges had water. Farmers watered their cattle at those beaver ponds.
“While other wetlands were drying up,” Hood says, “the ones with beaver had [up to nine times] more water in them.”
Wetlands function like a sponge, trapping rainwater and reabsorbing it back into the land. They provide habitat, moderate local climate and filter water. University of British Columbia professor Patrick Mooney designs artificial wetlands, which he says can cost over $16,000 per hectare. Meanwhile, “the beavers do it for free. And they do a really good job.” With global warming, as droughts become more severe, wetland preservation will be crucial. But, says Hood, “our current way of managing beavers is to look at them as pests,” and that’s often done through lethal means. She hopes her work could help the beaver regain its noble status once again. M
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