At 1st Midwest Beaver Summit, role of the hefty rodents praised in wetland restoration, climate change fight

Nara Schoenberg, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Weather News

As the nation faces a future of increasing flooding, drought and wildfires, millions of 60-pound rodents stand by, ready to assist.

Beavers can transform parched fields into verdant wetlands and widen rivers and streams in ways that not only slow surging floodwater, but store it for times of drought.

Still not impressed? In 2020, three raging wildfires in Colorado — including one with walls of flame 70 feet high — effectively bowed to the flat-tailed dam-builders, according to Emily Fairfax, an assistant professor of physical geography at the University of Minnesota at Twin Cities.

The fast-moving “megafires” left the water-saturated areas around beaver-occupied rivers largely unharmed, while beaver-free river banks suffered extensive damage.

“We desperately need to build more climate-resilient landscapes. We need to engineer something. We need to figure out a better solution,” Fairfax said. “And what I want to ask everyone to consider, is, what about nature’s engineers?”

And yes, she said, she was referring to the beaver.


Fairfax, who spoke earlier this week at the first-ever Midwest Beaver Summit, is part of a broader “beaver restoration” movement that has gained ground in recent years with ecologists in Colorado using simplified human-made beaver dams to encourage the animals to recolonize waterways, and California passing a new law encouraging nonlethal approaches to human-beaver conflicts.

There’s a popular 2018 book, “Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter” by environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb. There are conferences: BeaverCON on the East Coast and State of the Beaver on the West Coast.

And beaver advocates — sometimes called “beaver believers” in a nod to their starry-eyed intensity — have gained a foothold in Illinois, where Glenview resident Rachel Siegel formed the nonprofit Illinois Beaver Alliance in 2021.

“Beavers are having a moment,” Siegel said.


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