Beavers as Firefighters

Climate change and ineffective fire suppression have fanned fires across the world. Wildfires have burned over ten million acres in the whole world, and many have caused people to abandon their homes or even led some to death. Meanwhile, one of our most important firefighting allies has gone unnoticed: the beavers. We all know beavers as large, semiaquatic, cute animals with brownish fur colors living especially in North America. They build dams and canals as shelters using tree branches, vegetation, rocks, and mud. However, these dams and canals are not only the shelters of beavers but also the ultimate protector of the forest ecosystems. How? By allowing more water to reach the surroundings and thus, helping the plants and animals survive during wildfires. 

Beavers require trees and bushes to construct dams that impound flowing water to create a pond to provide shelter and protection. Construction usually starts in late summer or early fall, and they are repaired as needed. Beavers can fall trees with a diameter of 15 cm less than about 50 minutes; trees with a diameter of 25 cm or more can take up to four hours. Beavers bite the trunk at a 45° angle and chew with the side of their mouth, alternating between the left and right sides when munching down a tree. They use their robust jaw and neck muscles to chop tree branches and carry them across land and water. Other building materials used to make the dams more stable, such as mud and rocks, are carried with the forelimbs under the chin. Beavers also dig canals around their dams into the surrounding lands. These canals are filled with water from the bond and hence, act as carriers of water to the plants farther away from the dam. 

Using the dams and the canals, beavers first slow down the water stream in the river, then by expanding their dam they store the water, and by building canals they spread the water. As a result, even in extreme conditions of temperature rise, such as wildfires, plants can reach water and possibly survive. However, the reason why wildfires affect the areas with beavers less is not that water somehow stops the fire. The plants living in an ecosystem where there are dams and canals around are more hydrated as they have more access to water thanks to the beavers. Healthy and green plants that are highly hydrated are always more protected against any fire, while dry and brown plants are already mainly composed of dead cells and are prone to burning more vigorously. 

This idea of beavers allowing the environment around them to be more protected against wildfire is not only a theory but is proven through experiments. Inspired by the previous observations made by Joseph Wheaton from Utah State University, a team of researchers led by Emily Fairfax investigated five different states across North America that have been affected by wildfires in the last few years: California, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, and Wyoming. All these areas had different populations of beavers, some high and some very low. Using the satellite images that they were able to capture from these wildfire locations revealed that although wildfires affected all forests to some extent, areas with the beaver were much more green. 

“It doesn’t matter if there’s a wildfire right next door. Beaver-dammed areas are green and happy and healthy-looking.”

Emily Fairfax, An Ecohydrologist at California State University

With this study, we can conclude that it is highly likely that beaver activity aids in sustaining enough water for the environment so that they are less affected by the wildfires that could be extremely destructive. Along with protecting many plants from getting burnt by hydrating them, dams and canals can act as shelters for other animals as well during the wildfires. Scientists are now considering moving beaver populations across areas where wildfires occur frequently to avoid the devastating wildlife habitat destruction each time a fire occurs.

Scientists have known for decades that beavers bring a slew of environmental benefits. Beaver ponds and wetlands have been found to filter polluted water, nourish salmon, sequester carbon, and reduce flood damage. But now, we learned that they provide another key additional service: limiting the spread of wildfires. Despite all these benefits that beavers can have on the environment, thousands of beavers are slaughtered every year for flooding roads, cutting down trees, and causing other harm to human property. Smarter, more compassionate strategies, such as utilizing nonlethal flood-prevention devices or relocating the beavers rather than murdering them, could help us restore our ties with both beavers and wildfire.

Citations

[1] “Would Beavers Make Good Firefighters? – Science Journal for Kids.” Science Journal for Kids and Teens, 14 Dec. 2021, https://www.sciencejournalforkids.org/articles/would-beavers-make-good-firefighters/#:~:text=By%20building%20those%20dams%2C%20they,but%20also%20as%20effective%20firefighters. 

[2] Goldfarb, Ben. “How Beavers Became North America’s Best Firefighter.” Animals, National Geographic, 3 May 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/beavers-firefighters-wildfires-california-oregon. 

[3] “Beaver.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Jan. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beaver. 

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