“In most places, a world without beavers is a world without water and the life it supports”
(Glynnis Hood, The Beaver Manifesto, p. 5).
For more than a hundred years, almost every Canadian 5-cent piece has carried the image of a 60-pound rodent. Some Canadians question why we mint a coin with a rodent, instead of perhaps a magnificent polar bear. Yet Castor canadensis—the beaver—prevails. It remains a symbol of hard work, tenacity and duty. So, what can we learn from this unlikely teacher?
In the early days of European settlement across Canada, no single factor had as great an influence as the beaver. For centuries, beaver pelts drove the exploration, settlement, wars and politics of the land. The beaver was valued for its fur, yet reviled as a pest because its natural habits caused flooding, road washouts and loss of valuable trees.
In recent years trapping has diminished, so beaver populations are resurging. Many parts of Canada have adopted beaver-suppression programs to address the problems caused by the growing beaver population. Yet new voices are rising in defence of this oft-maligned rodent, pointing to the beaver’s valuable role in creating sustainable environments.
Beavers are second only to humans in their ability to permanently alter the environment to meet their needs. Beavers modify landscapes, bringing water back to previously dry areas. These furry hydro-engineers start in a small stream with vertically placed sticks, then weave branches through the sticks and pack them with mud or other debris. They position larger logs parallel to the water flow, fix them in place with more mud and debris, then continue the process to expand the structure’s width and height. Without the aid of mathematics, they may instinctively arc a widening dam to absorb increased water pressure as their work causes the water to deepen.
They are incessant workers. In northern Alberta, a beaver dam more than half a mile long has been found. Several generations of beavers have worked on that project for more than 40 years (“World’s largest beaver dam 40 years in the making.” The Star, May 7, 2010).
Beavers are well designed for their role. They have teeth that never stop growing, bodies perfectly made for swimming, eyes with built-in swimming goggles and the ability to stay submerged for 15 minutes. They are built to lift many times their own weight, pulling heavy logs to the water. They could not have been better engineered for their job.
The sound of running water motivates them, indicating a threat to their lodge. Since a beaver lodge must be in water deep enough to permit entry below the ice in winter, any flowing water must be stopped. In one case, a tape recorder playing the sound of running water was left in an area populated by beavers. Within hours, the device was “dammed”—buried in mud!
An adult beaver can cut down more than 400 trees per year for dam and lodge construction—and for food, as tree bark is the beaver’s primary diet. Their work is not just destructive, as their cutting down sections of forest near a pond actually opens the area for lush new growth of grasses, shrubs and young trees, thus increasing the food supply for wildlife that also benefit from the increased abundance of pond water. The beaver’s work renews and sustains the ecosystem. When the pond eventually fills with silt and plant debris, the beavers move on, having created a new meadow. Their old dams, hidden from sight by the overgrowth, cause water to be trapped under the new ground surface, which helps to protect the area from future drought.
Dr. Glynnis Hood has spent years studying and documenting the activities of beavers and their impact on landscape. Alberta’s Elk Island National Park was a perfect laboratory, providing 54 years of records on beaver populations and open water in times of rain surplus and drought. Her work, published in a book entitled, The Beaver Manifesto, documented the impact of the beaver in drought-proofing the ecosystem. She found that long-standing ponds and lakes with beavers had a staggering nine times more open water than ponds where beavers were not present, regardless of rainfall amounts. In 2002, Alberta had one of the worst droughts in its history. In Elk Island Park, the only places with much ponded water were those with beaver populations (p. 47).
Despite the good the beavers do, some still consider them a problem. Michel Leclair, manager of Gatineau Park in Quebec, for years tried to control beaver activity by dynamiting dams and killing beavers. Yet the efficient and industrious rodents would quickly rebuild, blocking culverts and flooding roads. So, as depicted in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary The Beaver Whisperer, Leclair decided to work with the beavers. Since the sound of moving water motivates them to build dams, he produced the sound of running water by placing posts in streams, directing the beavers to build in locations where he wanted a dam to be. Today, he runs an efficient water management system in a huge park—with hundreds of beavers serving as his willing, eager, non-union, unpaid civil servants! As Leclair describes in The Beaver Whisperer, the process of human dam-building—even for a small dam—requires expensive and time-consuming design, engineering reports, environmental assessments and construction contracts. Instead, Leclair coaxes the beavers to do the job for free in a matter of days, once he directs them to the work site.
Scripture describes the quality of life in the Kingdom of God, when Jesus Christ returns to the earth. God says, “I will open rivers in desolate heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water” (Isaiah 41:18). In the beaver, God has created and programmed with instinct a furry hydro-engineer to serve His creation. Leclair’s example illustrates what can be accomplished by working with God’s creation, rather than against it.
So, let us appreciate this symbol of Canada, the industrious beaver—an environmental superhero whose work stores water for other life forms, protects the ecosystem from drought, filters water pollutants, opens forests for new growth, turns desolate areas and small streams into fertile meadows, and restores ground water.
When the returning Jesus Christ sets up His kingdom on the earth, the planet will be restored to its intended state. No doubt the industrious beaver—beloved symbol of Canada—will be making its contribution.