There are promising programs to counteract polluted runoff, such as planting thousands of miles of vegetated buffers along rivers and streams. But those efforts are far behind schedule, and they don’t specifically call for the vegetation to be forest, the best buffer.
And while such greening of the Bay’s lands is good, we know that far better would be green and wet; and that’s where we need to reconsider and actively restore the beaver.
No creature on Earth, save for modern humans, has more capacity to transform a landscape; and in designing a landscape that produces excellent water quality, the beaver has no equal.
Beavers ruled the hydrology of North America for a million years or more, until just the last few centuries, when fur trapping reduced populations from an estimated 100 million or more to less than half a million. In the Chesapeake, from millions to thousands is a fair estimate.
Through damming and ponding, beavers stanched the shedding of water from the watershed, cleansed it, filtered it, held back floods, let rain soak in to keep water tables high and streams running even in drought. They created luxurious habitats for a stunning variety of amphibians, fish, waterfowl and mammals.
I'd like to hear more about that, because everywhere I hear beavers invading suburban spaces, it goes badly, initially for people, but then, usually for the beavers too. Beavers simply have no understanding of our needs to keep our roads and houses free of water and our landscaping uneaten. Why would they? They're a rodent, and not equpped with the finest brains. Not content staying out of the way, they eat themselves out of the home they're in, then move on to the next stream, whether or not people care. This usually results in the beavers being relocated, or if they're unlucky, turned into a beaver pelt coat.
In recent decades, beavers have come back to the point where a solid body of science in Canada and the United States confirms they were this continent’s most important keystone species — a species whose functioning underpins a whole ecosystem.
My class this year listened to a young man in the stream-restoration business say that in many cases, the work that his company does might be done as well or better by just releasing beavers.
But it is illegal to do that, he said.
That’s a mindset that needs to change. It will take education to overcome prevailing views of beavers as tree-chewing, property-flooding nuisances. They can be, but there are technologies to help us coexist — piping that keeps beaver ponds deep enough for the animals without flooding, for example.
The Wombat has Rule 5 Monday: Camila Cabello up and running.