As a forest firefighter, I have witnessed the effects of bigger and longer fire seasons. I have smelled the scorched earth and watched the ground blown to dust. In 2020, Colorado experienced its most destructive fires to date, with the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires burning more than 402,725 acres; That’s the equivalent of over 300,000 football fields!
In states with growing populations and increasing wildfire risks, we need innovative solutions to protect our communities and watersheds from larger, more violent, and more frequent wildfires.
One potential solution involves beavers.
Yes, you read that right. Beaver.
Let me explain how these creatures can play an important role in fighting forest fires.
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Recently, legislation was proposed directing the US Forest Service to immediately suppress forest fires on National Forest Service Lands. The bill requires the Forestry Service to “use all available resources to extinguish forest fires with the aim of extinguishing forest fires detected on the grounds of the National Forestry System no later than 24 hours after the forest fires are detected.”
While this law is well-meaning, I think we need to investigate solutions beyond total fire suppression.
The federal government has plans to spend $50 billion to help in fire mitigation. Fighting the greater blaze costs taxpayers’ money, the health of our forests, and precious human lives. In a time of increasing fire behavior, why would our leaders propose laws that are business as usual?
I know wildfire managers have only so many options, and suppression will be the right answer in most situations. But what if we took the time and resources and looked for alternative solutions and not just Band-Aids to our problems?
One such idea, which did not come to the mind of most people, was the mass reintroduction of beavers on federal soil. Prior to colonization, beavers abounded across the continent, numbering in the tens of millions. The numbers dwindled as Europeans trapped beavers for Europe’s lucrative fur industry.
Can we help reduce the risk of wildfires and return otter populations to their historic home ranges? I say yes!
Beavers are natural architects and provide a number of ecological benefits. Beaver ponds and dams filter pollutants. The wetlands created by their damming diversify habitats for many other species, creating aquatic food webs that support the life cycles of many game species across continents such as the salmon, lamprey, and steelhead on which humans have depended for thousands of years.
Beaver dams and ponds help slow floodwaters during heavy rain and snowmelt events, helping protect downstream communities. Beavers make canals from their ponds, which helps in rehydrating the landscape, giving groundwater a chance to cool and seep into the ground.
As recent studies have shown, post-fire areas with beavers do not burn to the same extent as surrounding areas. Wet, hydrated landscapes tend not to burn with the same severity as drier or unhydrated landscapes. It has great benefits for post fire recovery.
The wetlands created by beavers offer a species haven during and after wildfire events. Beaver habitation also helps protect watersheds. Dams and ponds serve as collection points for silt and ash from surrounding hillsides and give them time to settle, providing a filtration system for the water sources we rely on.
To be sure, the reintroduction of beavers is not the complete answer to reducing wildfire risk, but one tool among many that can help reduce risk. Recently, researchers have found that most people associate beavers with creating problems in residential and agricultural areas, causing flooding in the environment and grasslands. With smart management, the benefits of beavers on federal land far outweigh the potential risks to the human community — especially here in the fire-prone West.
Wildfires in the West will only increase in the years to come. Instead of just trying to put out fires as we have done historically, we need to find innovative solutions to change the behavior of forest fires. The encouragement of the beaver population on federal lands may be one tool of many to help us on our path forward to becoming a fire-resistant community.
With all the ecological benefits that beavers have to offer, this is a low-cost win for our communities and wilderness. We all have a role to play in being resilient to the changing behavior of fire. I encourage you to contact Colorado Parks and Wildlife and your federal representative and request innovative solutions to fire policy.
Jeremiah Gorske lives in Fort Collins.
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