World Without Beavers

Photo credit: Bigstock

My nine-month-old daughter and I look out our living room window. I point at the marsh below. “See the beaver?” I whisper. Through a tight waterway, a beaver swims. “What sounds do beavers make?” I ask Winter as we watch America’s largest rodent, a beast that grows to 50 or more pounds.

Winter tries to slap her hands together, her palms nearly touching.

“Yup,” I laugh, as I slap my own hands. “They also do this,” I say, as I chomp my teeth up and down. “And that chomping created all of this,” I tell her, my hands sweeping across the three acres of beaver dams and waterways and ponds beside our home, which are filled with snapping turtles, wood ducks, herons (“Hunters,” Winter accurately or accidentally calls them), bullfrogs, osprey, and even the rare moose. All in this one beaver built marsh.

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Before European arrival, there were 300 million beavers across North America. But beaver pelts became the currency that helped fund new settlements, and Native Americans and European Americans trapped all the beavers they could find. By 1750, beavers were nearly extirpated from New England and New York. But it wasn’t just trapping that led to their disappearance. Colonists wanted to use every acre of land for farming, and once dams were removed, the former beaver meadows, with their deep sediment deposits, made fertile farmland. As modern society took root, the government subsidized the further draining of these wetlands (which were seen as wastelands), using the land for roads, railroads, farms, and homes. It’s estimated that half the region’s wetlands were drained.

While habitat restoration has lagged, we’ve made incredible strides in the past century rectifying the damage that was done to beaver populations, and today beaver populations in the Northeast have mostly recovered. But as this history tornados through my mind, I think about what life would be like here if beavers had not returned.

In the morning light in that imagined world without beavers, Winter and I look out not on wetlands – but on what? Maybe a wet meadow, filled with reed grasses. Maybe a forest running from Solstice Mountain to the lake’s edge. Maybe a house built in the forest or on that meadow, our privacy lost to a neighbor’s barking dog.

But more than just privacy lost, I see habitat lost. From our window perch, I want to point things out to Winter. I want to say, “See, there!” but we find few things to show her. Just another patch of second-growth forest. A few ravens. A hungry turkey vulture circling in the air.

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When a beaver fells a tree, it tears open the canopy, allowing sunlight to drench the pond or stream below. This sunlight leads to bursts of aquatic plants and algae, which are gobbled up by microscopic organisms. These organisms not only absorb toxins but are also eaten by a bloom of invertebrates, which, in turn, become food for fish, birds, and mammals. An entire food chain is created and grows wider and wider, all through the removal of trees and the damming of streams. This then leads to sedges, bushes, grasses, and saplings sprouting along the water’s edge, providing shelter for shoreline animals. With Winter now a year and a half old, I point over the canoe gunwales and show her an entire aquatic world birthed from beavers’ refuse.

But beavers do much more than create habitat in water and on land. Plant growth and microbes in beaver-pond silt absorb sediment, toxic waste, and dissolved nutrients, acting as New England’s kidneys, cleansing Solstice Lake and so many others like it. Beavers, with their dam building, also control flooding and drought. During wet seasons, marshlands swell with water, growing their reservoirs, before gradually shrinking during dry seasons as water seeps out into lakes.

In that beaverless world, though, when Winter, my wife Sarah, and I canoe Solstice Lake, we don’t bother exploring the lakeshore because few trees have fallen there. Few fish create redds there; few snapping turtles scavenge there.

Instead, we stay in the belly of the lake. Without wetlands, rains run hard off Solstice Mountain and churn their way into the lake. Those hard rains bring sediment, muddying our water. The rains also carry unfiltered toxins from septic tanks, nearby roads, and agriculture and the pesticides and fertilizers used on lawns. This lake water is brown in winter and glowing-green in summer. “Unfit for swimming,” the state tells us.

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Beavers are America’s most important keystone species, which is to say that the habitat they create supports hundreds of other species. To list them all might fill up this entire page – a poem of species lost without beavers.

Rather than talking about the ripple effect of a single butterfly’s wings, we might talk about the beaver and its single dam. How mayflies and dragonflies and salamanders and frogs and toads flourish. How a pond raises the temperature of the groundwater beneath it, which can keep fish, macroinvertebrates, and reptiles alive in winter. How mallards, pintails, buffleheads, wood ducks, grebes, kingfishers, woodpeckers, wood swallows, and herons – especially great blue herons, with their high-rise nests – all depend on the ecosystem that a beaver creates. How bears seek out the sedges in beaver meadows when they’re starving in spring. How populations of mink, raccoon, otter, and muskrat all rise with the beaver and fall in its absence.

Winter learns the names of the animals around us, and the lessons are limited in a world without beavers.

There’s no “marsh,” so Sarah never teaches Winter to say “heron.” Never has Winter rolled the word “mink” around her mouth. Sarah never shows her a salamander, never teaches her the difference between a merganser and a wood duck. These animals exist in books, but how can you fall in love with something that’s so one-dimensional?

In this imagined world, come late August, when heavy rains pour, Winter and I wander to the lake shore, but the water has all rushed into the lake. There’s no beach to visit; it’s flooded under three feet of water.

With a few weeks of sun, the streams that feed the lake run dry, stretching into the hills like boney fingers. Our lake’s waterline plummets three feet below its “normal” level, though that word has lost its meaning; without beaver marshes to moderate water flow, the lake rises and falls like the stock market.

In this world, I tell Winter that the November moon is called the Beaver Moon, because that’s when the animals she can only read about used to cache food away for winter – industriously working as hard as “a busy beaver,” one more saying that once meant something but no longer does.

I want to teach Winter that beavers are monogamous. And when Winter asks, “What is monogamous?” I’ll say, “It’s when two people, or two animals, love each other their entire lives. Like Mama and Papa.”

But it is all a dream – nothing but a dream. A dream of beavers.

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It wasn’t until 1904 that the New York legislature passed a resolution calling for beaver reintroduction. But how do you reintroduce something if you cannot find it? New York sent state biologists to St. Louis for the Louisiana Purchase Centennial, where they bought 20 beavers, some from Canada, some from Yellowstone. By 1915, beaver populations had grown rapidly, and some 15,000 beavers, almost all of them birthed from those first 20, built dens across New York. Soon, the New England states reintroduced beavers, as well. These beavers searched for streams and wet areas, finding homes and creating habitat in marshes throughout our region, including on our Solstice Lake.

But what if they hadn’t? Imagine.

 
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