Science & Environment

Scientists believe beavers can build resilience in Northwest waterways

By Geoff Norcross (OPB) and Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
May 3, 2022 12 p.m. Updated: May 5, 2022 12:05 a.m.

They think returning beavers to our floodplains should be a part of our climate action plans.

Beaver on a dam

Beavers are known as "nature's engineers" because of the way they reshape the landscape with dams and canals, turning simple streams into messy wetlands.

Mike Digout / OPB


When beavers are allowed to do what beavers do, it’s good for us and the climate.

That’s the conclusion of Northwest researchers who are looking to improve water quality and curb our carbon output.

Chris Jordan, biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, co-authored a paper on how beavers should be a part of our climate action plan. He says the dams and channels beavers build have beneficial impacts on both water quality and quantity.

“They’re slowing the water down as it moves across the landscape, " Jordan says. “It gives the things that might be in that water that have washed off the land…a chance to settle out so it’s not moved downstream.”

Jordan also says beavers can help in the effort to suck carbon emissions out of the air, something the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says has to happen immediately.

“They’re making more plants because that’s their food, " Jordan says. “So if beavers are making more plants, they’re storing carbon that way.”


Jordan spoke with OPB Morning Edition host Geoff Norcross. Here are some highlights from their conversation:

Geoff Norcross: Basically speaking, what do beavers do to streams and rivers that would help us now?

Chris Jordan: What they do best is make the habitat good for them. If they’re out of the water, they bring the water to their vegetation, they make canals and they extend their pond. And all of those features that they make end up modifying or making floodplains and river forms that are really valuable habitat for lots of other plants and animals.

Norcross: And how do those changes benefit us?

Jordan: When beavers control the hydraulics, it gives the chance for things that might be in that water that have washed off the land to settle out so it’s not moved downstream. If there’s also pollutants, it gives longer time for those things to be processed so they’re taken out of the system. And so they’re changing the water quality. They’re slowing the water down, so they’re changing the timing of water moving through a system. And those have impacts on the water quality and water quantity through time that benefit us.

Norcross: A lot of the focus these days is on the need to reduce carbon emissions dramatically. Scientists all over the world are saying we need to do that now. How can beavers help with that?

Jordan: By making a living in those streams and floodplains, they’re making more plants because that’s their food. We think of them as ecosystem engineers, but they’re also really good rotational crop farmers. They’re chewing down plants that respond by being more productive and growing more vegetation. And now those plants are storing carbon because the plant material is built of carbon dioxide taken out of the atmosphere.

Norcross: Are there any downsides to bringing beavers back in this way?

Jordan: Not many. But we like to use those flood plains, too. Our development tends to be on those flat areas that are floodplains or historic floodplains. So we have the potential to be in conflict with beaver because we want to both be living in the same place.

Norcross: It makes me wonder if there are other species that could help us in this way, and could help the cause of building resilience in our landscapes. Are there other animals that can be brought into our climate action plan, too?

Jordan: I think beaver are pretty singular in their ability to modify the landscape in ways that are natural. This is a nature-based solution. This is not an engineering solution. This is encouraging beaver and beaver-modified floodplains to exist again in a much larger extent than they do now. We’re really just talking about letting the natural systems exist to the extent that they used to exist.

Click on the audio player above to hear the full conversation.