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Daily News Blog

09
Sep

Seeing the Value of Nature through Beavers, as Cattle Ranchers Benefit from These “Ecosystem Engineers”

(Beyond Pesticides, September 9, 2022) One kind of solution to the biodiversity crisis that is likely not on most folk’s bingo cards comes from a Nevada cattle rancher, who has shifted his relationship with . . . wait for it . . . beavers. As climate change impacts ramp up their toll in the U.S. via intensified droughts, floods, and wildfires, solutions are widely and eagerly sought, if deployed at insufficient pace. In this Nevada case, Agee Smith — unlike his rancher father, who reportedly “waged war against the animals, frequently with dynamite” — welcomes beavers and their industry on his ranch land. Doing so has yielded multiple benefits for his operation, the environment, and biodiversity. As reported by The New York Times, “Mr. Smith has become one of a growing number of ranchers, scientists and other “beaver believers” who see the creatures not only as helpers, but as furry weapons of climate resilience.”

Many landowners, of all stripes, consider beavers to be destructive “nuisance” animals that wantonly fell trees, and in so doing sometimes flood farm fields, back yards, roads, forests, or grazing acreage. Public complaints about such behaviors resulted in the federal government’s killing of more than 25,000 beavers in 2021. Such “reduction” is conducted by the Wildlife Services division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); the program targets some invasive species that threaten ecosystems (e.g., feral hogs or the giant nutria, a swamp rodent). It also kills huge numbers of native species, such as beavers, coyotes, Canada geese, red-winged blackbirds, wolves, black bears, bobcats, foxes, deer, prairie dogs, and others.

In 2021, more than 400,000 native animals were decimated. The Guardian reports that in 2021, 1.75 million total animals were killed — an astonishing metric but lower than in some years; in 2010 the figure was roughly 5 million; in 2018, the number was northward of 2.5 million. Among the techniques employed is use of noxious M-44 cyanide “bombs,” which have resulted in the death of a child, the blinding of another, and deaths of non-target species, such as dogs, opossums, raccoons, a wolf, ravens, and skunks.

According to The NYT, experts say that when human–beaver conflict does arise, as it will inevitably sometimes, there are non-lethal solutions. For example, fencing and paint can protect specific trees from powerful beaver incisors. There are also devices that stealthily undo the creatures’ handiwork via pipes that drain water from beaver settlements — even while the animals keep building. Wildlife advocates say that such tactics are actually highly effective, compared to killing the animals, because new beavers are likely to move into existing and desirable beaver habitat that has been vacated. When peaceful coexistence just does not work out, advocates encourage relocation of the animals, rather than their destruction.

Mr. Smith and some other landowners are seeing real benefits of their welcoming beavers on their land — many related to greater resilience to climate change impacts. The NYT reports on Mr. Smith’s experience: “When Nevada suffered one of the worst droughts on record, beaver pools kept his cattle with enough water. When rains came strangely hard and fast, the vast network of dams slowed a torrent of water raging down the mountain, protecting his hay crop. And with the beavers’ help, creeks have widened into wetlands that run through the sagebrush desert, cleaning water, birthing new meadows and creating a buffer against wildfires.”

Beaver dams — constructed to create safe impoundment areas for their lodges — help store water (a real livestock and wildlife “lifesaver” during now-frequent droughts in the West), slow down its flow during heavy rains or rapid snowmelt, reduce erosion from torrential downpours, and help recharge groundwater. The persistent wetlands beavers sometimes create also store carbon, thus, keeping it out of the atmosphere. In addition, beaver activity keeps the surrounding landscape damper, reducing the risk of wildfire. And the cherry on the whipped cream on the sundae is that the beavers’ work helps create new or restored habitat for myriad species, including fish, mammals, waterfowl, birds, amphibians, and insects. Plusses for the climate? Check. For biodiversity? Check. For Mr. Smith’s hay and cattle? Check. We believe this is called a “win-win-win.”

Not for nothing are these creatures considered by some to be consummate ecosystem/environmental engineers. Chris Jordan of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, and Emily Fairfax of California State University Channel Islands wrote in early 2022: “It may seem trite to say that beavers are a key part of a national climate action plan, but the reality is that they are a force of 15–40 million highly skilled environmental engineers. . . . We cannot afford to work against them any longer. We need to work with them.” California’s Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot sums up the sentiment: “We need to get beavers back to work. Full employment for beavers!” Beaver believer Agee Smith notes that welcoming beavers to work on his land has been one of his best decisions, adding, “They’re very controversial still. But it’s getting better. People are starting to wake up.”

The Orianne Society, which advocates for the conservation of reptiles and amphibians and their ecosystems, describes “ecosystem engineers” well: “Ecosystem engineers are species that modify their environment in a significant manner, creating new habitats or modifying existing ones to suit their needs. Through their activities ecosystem engineers significantly affect other species by providing and maintaining microhabitats that would not otherwise exist. In fact, ecosystem engineers can often (but not always) be defined as keystone species, meaning that they play a critical role in their environments and affect many other species in the ecosystem. Ecosystem function and biodiversity would be significantly reduced without the presence of a keystone species. . . . The beaver is probably the most well-known example of a typical ecosystem engineer that also acts as a keystone species. Beavers cut down trees and build dams in small waterways, backing up water and creating beaver ponds. Beavers manipulate waterways for their own benefit, but these manipulations also provide habitat for many other species. Beaver dams and ponds also play important roles in many abiotic ecosystem processes (e.g., nutrient cycling and siltation). Without beavers to modify existing environments, these important wetlands would not exist and many species would be negatively affected.”

However, river scientist Caroline Nash, who has done research on beaver-related restoration, emphasizes that human cooperation with the engineering activities of beavers should be deployed after case-by-case evaluation, asserting, “It’s all about identifying those locations where beavers’ survival interests align with humans’ survival interests, and they’re not always aligned. . . . [S]o suggesting that they’re always going to be aligned is creating a recipe, I think, for broken hopes and expectations and a loss of trust.”

The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sees merit in the efforts to “employ” beavers to benefit the creatures themselves, as well as ecosystems and human interests. It is working with partners in Oregon, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Nevada, Idaho, and Colorado to “seed” beaver-like dams that, it is hoped, beavers will inhabit and expand. California’s state budget has earmarked roughly $1.5 million annually for restoration of beavers — for their roles in advancing climate resiliency and biodiversity.

As such efforts reference, the biodiversity crisis travels hand in hand with the climate crisis; the causes and solutions are necessarily interactive. And as noted in an article in the European Commission magazine, Horizon, “Climate change and biodiversity loss should be tackled together”: “In a two-way process, climate change is one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss, but destruction of ecosystems undermines nature’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and protect against extreme weather, thus accelerating climate change and increasing vulnerability to it. This explains why the two crises must be tackled together with holistic policies that address both issues simultaneously and not in silos.”

The chief causes of the significant global loss of biodiverse organisms are generally acknowledged to be changes in land use (largely for large-scale food production, such as the clearing of Amazonian rainforest land for cattle grazing); overexploitation of organisms for food, wood, and medicines (via hunting, fishing, and harvesting beyond sustainable boundaries); climate change; and chemical overuse (in nearly every sector of human activity, and pointedly, in agriculture) that harms organisms and their ecosystems.

[A brief sidebar on cattle: environment and food system advocates, including the World Wildlife Fund, have pointed repeatedly to the devastation caused by cattle ranching in the Amazon region, where 80% of the deforestation of the “lungs of the world” is caused by the beef cattle sector. Though this is by far the most dramatic example of the unsustainability of this livestock practice, the huge land area and water resources devoted to raising beef cattle in the U.S. — never mind the problematic waste and methane production associated with the CAFOS (concentrated animal feeding operations) on which most domestic livestock is raised — warrant a serious reconsideration of the role of this industry’s commodity in the American diet.]

By their very nature, pesticides are designed to reduce biodiversity — to suppress any population seen as a threat to economic enterprise, human health, and/or human convenience. Beyond Pesticides laid out the case, a few years ago, for how pesticide use is ravaging, especially, insects (including many critical pollinators) and soil micro-organisms, and their ecosystems and food sources, and how organic agriculture supports biodiversity.

Indeed, the 2019 United Nation’s (UN’s) Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report said that the species extinction rate is accelerating and that Nature, broadly, is declining at a rate “unprecedented in human history.” The subheads of the comprehensive report are telling: “Current global response insufficient; ‘Transformative changes’ needed to restore and protect nature; Opposition from vested interests can be overcome for public good; [and] 1,000,000 species threatened with extinction.”

IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson, commented at the report’s release: “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. . . . The Report also tells us that it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global.” 

There are efforts — in addition to rancher peacemaking with beavers — to restore diverse populations and habitats. In 2021, U.S. House Representatives Joe Neguse, Alan Lowenthal, and Jared Huffman reintroduced a resolution calling for a national biodiversity strategy. Rep. Lowenthal commented, “It is imperative that we work to correct this immediately — not only to protect the world’s disappearing biodiversity but because the impacts to our environment and climate also impact our economies, human health, and our ability to live on this planet.”

In June 2022, the U.S. House passed the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA), which would invest $1.397 billion per year in state, local and tribal efforts to help wildlife at risk. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) endorses this legislation, which is now in the hands of the Senate, saying that RAWA would “invest in time-tested, locally driven strategies to restore species and the ecosystems that sustain them.” In addition, there is, according to TNC, much discussion of pairing this bill with one that would end the abuse of conservation easements for tax shelter purposes [— a favorite ploy of very wealthy landowners, including large corporations]. The bipartisan Charitable Conservation Easement Program Integrity Act would put a stop to these fraudulent actions and, in doing so, cover most of the cost of RAWA.”

Early in President Biden’s term, the administration announced a U.S. Interior Department initiative, 30 by 30, that joins the U.S. with 50 other countries in aiming to conserve 30% of each nation’s land and water by 2030. A laudable goal, but the announcement of 30 by 30 underscores an inexplicable fact: the U.S. is the only United Nations (UN) member that has not ratified what is arguably the most important international treaty on biodiversity — the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. (See a list of signatories, as well as of those countries that have ratified the treaty, here.)

As reported by Vox, the U.S. helped craft the treaty, and signed on to it in 1993, but for nearly three decades, “Republican lawmakers have blocked ratification, which requires a two-thirds Senate majority. They’ve argued that CBD would infringe on American sovereignty, put commercial interests at risk, and impose a financial burden, claims that environmental experts say have no support.” Environmental advocates assert that the U.S. refusal to ratify the treaty causes real harm to biodiversity efforts when, never more than now, the crisis makes them imperative.

The need for action on protecting Nature’s creatures and habitats could not be more urgent. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) quotes UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s pithy assessment: “Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century, it must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere.”

Beyond Pesticides continues to do its part in bringing this issue forward, including through the second, October 12, session of its (rapidly) upcoming 2022 National Forum Series: Meeting the Health, Biodiversity, and Climate Crises with a Path for a Livable Future. The plenary sessions for that day will focus on various topics on the biodiversity crisis and solutions. We call attention particularly to the presentation of Dr. Lucas Garibaldi, who is a member of IPBES and contributed to its most recent report. He is also co-chair the Transformative Change Assessment for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); the group is tasked with identifying options for achieving the CBD 2050 vision for biodiversity.

Please join us for this important series on addressing the related and growing biodiversity, climate, and health crises. Register here. We look forward to your participation.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/06/climate/climate-change-beavers.html

 

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

 

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