As a wildland firefighter, I have witnessed the impacts of larger and longer fire seasons. I have smelled the charred earth and watched the soil blown away into dust. In 2020, Colorado had its most destructive fires to date, with the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires burning more than 402,725 acres; that’s equivalent to more than 300,000 football fields!
In a state with an expanding population and increasing wildfire risk, we need innovative solutions to protect our communities and watersheds from larger, more ferocious, and more frequent wildfires.
One potential solution involves beavers.
Yes, you read that correctly. Beavers.
Let me explain how these critters can play an important role in combating wildfire.
Recently, legislation was proposed directing the U.S. Forest Service to immediately suppress wildfires on National Forest Service Lands. The bill requires the Forest Service to “use all available resources to carry out wildfire suppression with the purpose of extinguishing wildfires detected on National Forest System lands not later than 24 hours after such a wildfire is detected.”
While this legislation is well intentioned, I think we need to investigate solutions outside of total suppression of fire.
The federal government has plans to spend $50 billion to aid in fire mitigation. Battling larger blazes costs taxpayer dollars, the health of our forests, and precious human lives. In a time of increasing wildfire behavior, why are our leader’s proposing legislation that is business as usual?
I know wildfire managers have only so many options, and suppression will be the right answer in many 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 does not spring to most people’s minds, is the mass reintroduction of beavers on federal lands. Before colonization, beavers were abundant across the continent, numbering in the tens of millions. Numbers dwindled as Europeans trapped beaver for a lucrative fur industry back in Europe.
Could we help reduce wildfire risk and return beaver populations to their historic ranges? I say yes!
Beavers are nature’s architects and provide a host of ecological benefits. Beaver ponds and dams filter out pollutants. The wetlands created from their damming activities diversify habitat for many other species, creating an aquatic food web that supports the life cycle of many game species across the continent such as salmon, lamprey and steelhead that humans have depended on for thousands of years.
Beaver dams and ponds aid in slowing flood waters in heavy rainfall and snowmelt events, helping to safeguard downstream communities. Beavers create canals from their ponds, which aid in rehydrating landscapes, giving groundwater the chance to cool and seep into the soil.
As demonstrated in a recent study, post-wildfire areas with beavers did not burn to the same extent as the surrounding area. Wet, hydrated landscapes are less likely to burn with the same severity as drier or non-hydrated landscapes. This has great benefits for post fire recovery.
The wetlands created by beavers offer a haven for species during and after wildfire events. Beaver dwellings help protect downstream water sheds, as well. The dams and ponds act as collection sites for silt and ash from surrounding hillsides and give them time to settle, providing a filtration system for the water sources we depend on.
To be sure, beaver reintroduction is not the complete answer to reducing wildfire risk, but one tool among many that can aid in reducing the risk. Recently, researchers have found that most people associate beavers with creating trouble in residential and agricultural areas, causing flooding of neighborhoods and pastures. With smart management, the benefits of beavers on federal lands far outweigh the potential risks to human communities — especially here in the fire-prone West.
Wildfires across the West are only going to intensify in the coming years. Instead of just trying to suppress fire as we have historically done, we need to search for innovative solutions to changing wildfire behavior. The encouragement of beaver populations on federal lands may be one tool of many to help us on our path forward to becoming fire resilient communities.
With all the ecological benefits beavers offer, this is a low-cost win for our communities and wildlands. We all have a role to play in becoming resilient to changing fire behavior. I encourage you to contact Colorado Parks and Wildlife and your federal representatives and demand innovative solutions to fire policy.
Jeremiah Gorske lives in Fort Collins.
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