Last summer’s record drought brought more to the northeast than browning lawns, undersized produce and water restrictions. This too raised a frightening new concern – forest fires. Massachusetts, which typically sees fewer than 50 wildfires per season, saw more than 100 fires in August alone.
Wildfires are getting worse as climate change brings hotter, drier weather and longer fire seasons. Forty percent of the Northeast is made up of forests. Along the east coast, thunderstorms are often accompanied by rain which can lead to a particularly dangerous type of wildfire characterized by “delayed ignition”. In these highly unpredictable wildfires, sparks smolder hidden in the tree canopy, sometimes for weeks, before igniting. But New England has an overlooked and usually plentiful firefighting ally: Castor canadensis, the North American beaver.
“We’ve known for some time that beavers can change the direction of a fire,” said Emily Fairfax, an ecohydrologist at California State University Channel Islands, one of the lead researchers behind a new pilot project. who studies the ways in which forest fires can be controlled using beavers. “The question we want to investigate now is which beaver activity is needed in which areas to affect fire behavior.”
The idea that a relatively small rodent could impact a wildfire moving at terrifying speeds seems unlikely, but Fairfax and other researchers published a study in 2020 which documented the extent to which beavers and beaver wetlands had created refuges in even some of the worst recent wildfires in the West. She and other scientists have also documented how many beaver dam complexes in these fire-ravaged areas played a vital role in post-fire recovery by cleaning water from its ashes.
Fairfax’s new study, which she undertook with geomorphologist Joe Wheaton of Utah State University and which is funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is now taking this research on beavers and wildfires one step further. They are studying the nuts and bolts of how beavers could be implemented in wildlife mitigation programs. “There’s been so much discussion about the potential of beavers in river landscape restoration to help in the context of a fire,” Fairfax explained, “My goal is to make this a real-world solution to climate change.”
For some time, beavers have been used for river restoration throughout North America – actively reintroduced into the river systems of places like Milwaukee and Maryland to aid in water storage, cleaning and to mitigate floods, but it’s fascinating to think that beavers are now helping to fight forest fires. When you think about it, the relationship between beavers in the landscape and increased forest fire protection makes sense; as Wheaton commented, “It’s not really that complicated, the water doesn’t burn.”
Beavers are one of the largest conservation 20th century throwback stories. They were nearly wiped out during the fur trade, but clever wildlife reintroduction programs in the early 1900s returned them to the landscape. Now beavers have a new role to play in building climate resilience if communities, municipalities and individual landowners can enjoy what they do naturally.
Here in the Northeast, the challenge will be to create enough beaver habitat free from human-wildlife conflict. Beavers will do what beavers do best: chop down trees, build dams, and create wetlands. Beavers can flood roads and other infrastructure. But there are increasingly sophisticated methods for managing beaver activity, including the installation of pond levelers and outflow devices that can protect roads and culverts.
The Northeast needs up-to-date education and updated beaver management policies. Where I live in Connecticut, beavers cannot be moved, a holdover from a time when beavers were believed to pose a significant risk of disease transmission. This law should be changed; beavers do not carry high levels of disease and there are many places where the water and biodiversity they bring are needed – and where they can thrive without causing human-wildlife conflict.
Above all, we cannot afford to continue to view beavers as vermin and lose the valuable environmental services they provide; beavers can be part of a viable north american climate action plan – they bring much-needed water back to the land, and their wetlands slow down, store and purify water – water residents need to fill their wells, water plants and crops and, yes , fight future forest fires. Perhaps the Forest Service should consider a new animal mascot, Smokey the beaver.
Leila Philip is the author of “Beaverland: How a strange rodent created Americaand professor in the English department of the Collège de la Sainte-Croix.