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Beaver watchers exchange science and Indigenous knowledge

Ken Tape

For the past decade more Arctic residents have noticed an increase in beavers and the way they change the land and affect other animals. The Arctic Beaver Observation Network, or ABON is meeting for three days in Fairbanks to inform each other about new findings.

Scientists came from Canada, the United Kingdom, Norway and the US. Trappers came from Kotzebue, Stebbins, Noatak, Shungnak and Inuvik.

They all have evidence that beavers are extending their range north.

Dr. Glynnis Hood of the University of Alberta says beavers change their environment to benefit their aquatic biology. She examined 50 years of aerial photos of a part of Alberta, and mapped where beavers had dug out ponds, where there were no rivers or streams.

“These are geographically isolated wetlands where you've got little pothole wetlands that don't have any real major streams and certainly no rivers. They're doing this all with their two little front feet.”

Hood says beavers dig channels to extend the capacity of ponds – they move much more soil than previously thought.

Frank Rosell

Hanna Kavli Lodberg-Holm from the University of Southeast Norway, says Eurasian beavers have recovered from centuries of aggressive trapping, and are now reported all over her long, coastal country, half of which is in the Arctic.

“So the red color is where you find Eurasian beavers today. So they really ranked a remarkable recovery and they're still spreading and being reintroduced to a lot of places.”

This is the third time the network has met. They started online in 2020 and last met in Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, in 2022. ABON is lead by UAF Research Professor Ken Tape, with help from Benjamin Jones of the Institute of Northern Engineering and Caroline Brown, with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.
Arctic Beaver Observation Network is funded by the National Science Foundation. The five-year project runs through 2026. The network consists of scientists, local observers, land managers, tribal representatives and other stakeholders.

Trapper Lance Kramer from Kotzebue, showed network participants a map of new beaver lodges on his peninsula.

“You can see our peninsula. This is Kotzebue down here. This is our town of 3,200 people. We have a portage trail that goes back across the peninsula there, and you can see all these lodges. That's a lot of lodges. And there's even more now; this picture was taken two years ago.”

So are all these new beavers, with their new ponds, which melt permafrost and accelerate warming, good or bad? It depends on whether you are a bird, a fish, a wolf or a caribou.

Ph.D. student Sebastian Zavoico says the ponds provide new places for waterfowl, and a change in fish species.

“This pond is, it's probably about a year or two old, and all of these willows have been flooded and have died. We've found that flooding is really causing that permafrost surrounding the area to change, disappearing.”

Scientists call it a disturbance. For example, Zavoico says wolverine populations have increased near beaver ponds, and wolves will eat beaver as an alternative to caribou, allowing caribou numbers to increase.

“If beavers move into an area, they might be able to provide a secondary food source for wolves when the caribou populations are lower. That keeps the wolf populations high and then they also be that much more effective in being caribou predators when the caribou return.”

Beaver colonization of the Arctic represents a disturbance as great as wildfire. There’s no other animal that has changed the Arctic so much, so fast, except for humans.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.