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Wolves and beavers may be the key to restoring ecosystems in the American West

A beaver swims in the forest near Puerto Williams, Chile on February 05, 2020. (Pablo Cozzaglio/AFP via Getty Images)
A beaver swims in the forest near Puerto Williams, Chile on February 05, 2020. (Pablo Cozzaglio/AFP via Getty Images)

Scientists have a plan to help restore wildlife habitat in the American West by moving grazing livestock off public lands and reintroducing two controversial species: wolves and beavers.

In a recent study published in the journal Bioscience, ecologists and biologists focus on what they call the Western Rewilding Network — 500,000 acres of federal public lands spread across 11 Western states. The plan is a response to the Biden administration’s call to conserve 30% of American lands and waters by 2030.

Ecologist George Wuerthner, executive director of Public Lands Media, co-authored the study and says the plan aims to address a significant loss of biodiversity in the U.S. by protecting the species’ habitats. The plan also provides a cost-effective way to store carbon in soil that can address extreme weather events like wildfires in the West, hurricanes back East and melting ice in the Arctic.

Wolves and beavers have massive impacts on their environments and other critters but are not always beloved by humans who live nearby.

“Both wolves and beavers are what we consider keystone species. Keystone refers to the idea of an archway and the last stone that goes in and holds the whole arch together,” Wuerthner says. “Certain species are like that for their ecosystems.”

For decades, wolves have been one of the most hotly debated issues in the West. By eating certain prey species, wolves have effects throughout the ecosystem. In Yellowstone National Park, for example, bringing back wolves caused red fox populations to increase because the number of coyotes declined.

As the top predator, wolves require large spaces, so reintroducing the species creates a big reserve area. Without wolves, livestock and some native species like elk can over-graze riparian areas, Wuerthner says.

“Riparian areas are the wetlands and vegetation affected by water along streams and waterways that are very crucial in Western landscapes for all kinds of wildlife,” he says. “Up to 70% of the native species in the West rely on riparian areas at some point in their lifecycle, so recovering riparian areas is really essential to this whole idea of trying to bring back habitat for wildlife.”

Humans often complain about industrious beavers, whose dams sometimes flood roads and areas people want to keep dry. These “ecosystem engineers” lived across the West at one point in history, Wuerthner says.

On federal lands, the impact on individuals from beavers causing floods would be minimal, he says.

“[Beavers’] dams slowed the flow of water, so we had less flooding,” he says. “The way that the dams trap sediment meant the water quality was better and the creation of these wetlands and protection of the repaired areas provided all this habitat for wildlife.”

Reducing the amount of livestock on public land would reduce the number of conflicts with species like wolves, Wuerthner says. That solution might sound great to environmentalists and biologists, but ranchers may not agree.

Back in 2016, there was a standoff with the federal government at the Mellon National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. And another conflict over grazing areas for livestock on public land broke out on the Bundy ranch in Nevada in 2014. Ecologists like Wuerthner are proposing a buyout for ranchers who graze on these public lands.

“The thing to remember is that it is public land and it means it’s owned by all citizens. And any use by commercial industry, including the livestock industry, is a privilege,” he says. “It is not something that is guaranteed.”

Cattle make ranchers a marginal profit in the West because of the arid climate — which is also the reason why the animals do so much damage to the landscape, Wuerthner says. Ranchers can use the buyout money to retire or buy more private land to continue raising cattle, he says.

And the federal government spends more administering grazing allotments than it makes back from the fees, he says.

“Carbon storage is worth far more on these lands,” Wuerthner says, “and that would be improved by the elimination of cattle.”

 Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’DowdAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

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