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The Remarkable Beaver

For more than a hundred years, almost every Canadian 5-cent piece has carried the image of a 60-pound rodent. Some Canadians question why their nation mints a coin with a rodent, instead of perhaps a magnificent polar bear. Yet Castor canadensis—the beaver—prevails. It remains a symbol of hard work, tenacity and duty. Indeed, “busy as a beaver” is an oft-heard phrase. So, what can we learn from this unlikely teacher?

In the early days of European settlement across Canada, no single factor had as great an influence as the North American beaver, found also across the United States and northern Mexico, but of special importance to settlers living in the farther northern parts of the continent. For centuries, beaver pelts drove the exploration, expansion, wars, and politics not only of Canada, but also the United States, where in the early 1800s they were the single most important commodity as the U.S. expanded westward. The beaver was valued for its fur, but it was also reviled as a pest because its natural habits caused flooding, road washouts, and loss of valuable trees. Both factors together saw a dramatic decrease in the beaver population, driven nearly to extinction in many American regions where it had once flourished.

In the twentieth century, trapping diminished and beaver populations began again to increase, on their own and with the help of environmentalists who reintroduced the valuable animal to old habitats. Indeed, the resurgence of the beaver has been so great that some parts of Canada have adopted beaver-suppression programs to address the problems caused by the growing beaver population. Yet new voices are rising in defense of this oft-maligned rodent, pointing to the beaver’s valuable role in creating sustainable environments.


Beavers are second only to humans in their ability to permanently alter the environment to meet their needs. Beavers modify landscapes, bringing water back to previously dry areas. These furry hydro-engineers start in a small stream with vertically placed sticks, then weave branches through the sticks and pack them with mud or other debris. They position larger logs parallel to the water flow, fix them in place with more mud and debris, then continue the process to expand the structure’s width and height. Without the aid of mathematics, they may instinctively arc a widening dam to absorb increased water pressure as their work causes the water to deepen.

They are incessant workers. In northern Alberta, spanning the border of the Northwest Territories, Wood Buffalo National Park is home to what is believed to be the world’s largest beaver dam, with a perimeter of about 2,000 meters and a surface area around 70,000 square meters—large enough that it is visible in photographs taken from Earth-orbiting satellites. The pond created by the dam is estimated to contain roughly 70,000 cubic meters of water, the equivalent of 1,600 hockey rinks.

Beavers are well designed for their role. They have teeth that never stop growing, bodies perfectly made for swimming, eyes with built-in swimming goggles, and the ability to stay submerged for 15 minutes. They are built to lift many times their own weight, pulling heavy logs to the water. They could not have been better engineered for their job.

The sound of running water motivates them, indicating a threat to their lodge. Since a beaver lodge must be in water deep enough to permit entry below the ice in winter, any flowing water must be stopped. In one case, a tape recorder playing the sound of running water was left in an area populated by beavers. Within hours, the device was “dammed”—buried in mud!


An adult beaver can cut down more than 400 trees per year for dam and lodge construction—and for food, as tree bark is the beaver’s primary diet. Their work is not destructive only, as their cutting down sections of forest near a pond actually opens the area for lush new growth of grasses, shrubs, and young trees, thus increasing the food supply for wildlife that also benefit from the increased abundance of pond water. The beaver’s work renews and sustains the ecosystem. When the pond eventually fills with silt and plant debris, the beavers move on, having created a new meadow. Their old dams, hidden from sight by the overgrowth, cause water to be trapped under the new ground surface, which helps to protect the area from future drought.

Dr. Glynnis Hood has spent years studying and documenting the activities of beavers and their impact on landscape. Alberta’s Elk Island National Park was a perfect laboratory, providing 54 years of records on beaver populations and open water in times of rain surplus and drought. Her work, published in a book entitled, The Beaver Manifesto, documented the impact of the beaver in drought-proofing the ecosystem. She found that long-standing ponds and lakes with beavers had a staggering nine times more open water than ponds where beavers were not present, regardless of rainfall amounts. In 2002, Alberta had one of the worst droughts in its history. In Elk Island Park, the only places with much ponded water were those with beaver populations (p. 47). As she wrote, “In most places, a world without beavers is a world without water and the life it supports” (p. 5).

Despite the good the beavers do, some still consider them a problem. Michel Leclair, manager of Gatineau Park in Quebec, for years tried to control beaver activity by dynamiting dams and killing beavers. Yet the efficient and industrious rodents would quickly rebuild, blocking culverts and flooding roads. So, as depicted in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary The Beaver Whisperer, Leclair decided to work with the beavers. Since the sound of moving water motivates them to build dams, he produced the sound of running water by placing posts in streams, directing the beavers to build in locations where he wanted there to be a dam. Today, he runs an efficient water management system in a huge park—with hundreds of beavers serving as his willing, eager, non-union, unpaid civil servants! As Leclair describes in The Beaver Whisperer, the process of human dam-building—even for a small dam—requires expensive and time-consuming design, engineering reports, environmental assessments, and construction contracts. Instead, Leclair coaxes the beavers to do the job for free in a matter of days, once he directs them to the work site.


Scripture describes the quality of life in the Kingdom of God, when Jesus Christ returns to the earth. God says, “I will open rivers in desolate heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water” (Isaiah 41:18). In the beaver, God has created and programmed with instinct a furry hydro-engineer to serve His creation. Leclair’s example illustrates what can be accomplished by working with God’s creation, rather than against it.

So, let us appreciate the beaver—symbol not just of Canada, but of industrious activity the world over. The remarkable beaver is an environmental superhero whose work stores water for other life forms, protects the ecosystem from drought, filters water pollutants, opens forests for new growth, turns desolate areas and small streams into fertile meadows, and restores groundwater.

When the returning Jesus Christ sets up His kingdom on the earth, the planet will be restored to its intended state. No doubt the industrious beaver will be making its contribution.