In 2022, myself and about 200 others from across the United States, England, Wales, and the Netherlands gathered near Baltimore to attend BeaverCon, a two-day conference to learn and share about beavers. The attendees included restoration professionals, scientists, biologists, landowners, students, and representatives from state, local, and federal governments. So why a conference dedicated to these aquatic rodents? Beavers are a keystone species, meaning that they have a significant impact on their ecosystem, and that ecosystem greatly changes in their absence. Their obsessive dam building, which they do to create a safe haven for themselves, has massive water quality and habitat benefits. Their dams back up streams and flood valleys, capture sediment, and create acres of wetlands that store floodwaters, absorb carbon, and recharge groundwater. Beavers could once be found in almost every river and stream from northern Canada to northern Mexico before they were hunted nearly to extinction for their furs. We have seen the effects of the extirpation of beavers in the form of dryer landscapes and incised streams, which exacerbate drought, sediment pollution, devastating fires, and inland flooding. Fortunately, beaver populations are on the rise. In a time when our planet’s climate is changing, with wildfires and storms increasing in frequency and intensity, beavers have a critical role to play in the resiliency of our communities and ecosystems. That is what drew attendees from across the globe to attend BeaverCon.

Photo credit: Kaitlyn Dolan, Chesapeake Bay Program

Dr. Emily Fairfax studies beavers out of California State University Channel Islands. Her research has shown that beaver ponds are creating natural firebreaks in the face of the mega-fires that are ravaging the American west. In the Netherlands and Wales, researchers are looking into ways to reintroduce Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber, the American species is Castor canadensis) in these low-lying areas that, once populated by beavers and their dams, are now densely populated by people and their infrastructure. We need beaver dams to control floodwaters and provide critical habitat in these areas where they have been absent for hundreds of years. Beavers are seen as encroaching on our orderly human world, whether by chewing trees or creating flooded areas. Therein lies the crux of BeaverCon. How can we learn to live with this species that is critical to our ecosystems but is so often at odds with our modern society? Many presenters shared different methods of managing human-beaver conflict. Techniques range from relocating beavers to wilder areas to installing “beaver deceivers,” flow devices that allow beavers to maintain their dams while the device maintains a set water level that does not create flooding. 

constructed beaver dam

Photo credit: David Lanier, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay

It is appropriate that this national conference takes place in the Chesapeake watershed. Beavers’ impact in the Chesapeake before their widespread removal cannot be overstated. Some of our favorite Chesapeake species evolved alongside beavers. Brook trout, yellow perch, wood ducks, and hellbenders, to name a few, all use beaver ponds for food, spawning, and shelter. In the Chesapeake region, the Bureau of Watershed Protection and Restoration in Anne Arundel County, Maryland is looking into ways to maintain beaver dams, assigning dollar and water quality value to beaver ponds and wetlands to make informed decisions about beaver management. They are exploring options to maintain beaver ponds and “lease” beaver ponds from private landowners in order to capture their long-term water quality and habitat benefits in the scope of Chesapeake Bay restoration. 

We still mimic their work in our efforts to restore the Bay. Constructed wetland and stream restoration projects often replicate conditions that beavers create. The Alliance is playing beaver as well! In 2022, the Alliance worked with federal partners to create over five acres of wetlands in a former agricultural field at Cedar Point Wildlife Management Area in Charles County, Maryland. What was once a dry field covered in grasses and invasive plants is now a thriving wetland with a highly diverse habitat. We will be keeping an eye out and will be sure to let you know if any beavers move in from upstream, and we look forward to installing more projects like this across the watershed. 

Do you want to learn more about beavers from the experts themselves? You can find videos of the 2022 BeaverCon sessions here.