More Wolves, Beavers Could Help Western Lands

Rewilding the American West will revive the ecosystem, researchers say.

Mexican grey wolf

Mary Therit / Getty Images

One of the areas hit hard by climate change is the American West. To help restore the faltering ecosystem, a team of researchers suggests rewilding the lands with wolves and beavers. They say adding the animals would help restore key ecological processes.

“We were very concerned about the converging crises in the American West, including extreme droughts and heatwaves, loss of biodiversity, massive wildfires, and water scarcity,” co-lead author Christopher Wolf, a postdoctoral scholar in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, tells Treehugger.

“We felt these crises could be partially addressed through broad-scale rewilding of wolves and beaver, which can have many important co-benefits.”

Wolves and beavers have an important impact on the environment, the authors say, because they have far-reaching, rippling effects on their habitats.

In their paper, the team of 20 scientists suggests establishing a network of federal reserve areas. They propose an end to livestock grazing on some federal lands while restoring the gray wolf and North American beaver populations because the animals play such important roles.

“In the process of building dams, beavers have many important ecological effects such as improving water quality, enhancing riparian (river bank) habitat for plant and animal species and increasing carbon sequestration, which can help mitigate climate change,” Wolf explains.

“Likewise, gray wolves have many key ecological benefits. By controlling overabundant native ungulates (mammals with hooves), wolves support a variety of species, including aspen, which is a keystone species that in turn provides critical habitat for many plants and animals.”

Restoring Habitat and Limiting Grazing

The researchers suggest the rewilding effort to further President Joe Biden’s “America the Beautiful” plan to protect and conserve 30% of land and water in the United States by 2030. He challenged Americans to “conserve, connect, and restore the lands, waters, and wildlife upon which we all depend.”

The team details a three-step approach focused on the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and the North American beaver (Castor canadensis). First, they suggest phasing down allotments for livestock grazing. Additionally, they propose restoring and protecting gray wolves and reintroducing beavers in appropriate areas.

“Importantly, we focus exclusively on rewilding federal lands, which belong to the American people,” Wolf says.

They started with wolves, looking at potential habitats on federal lands in 11 Western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The authors pinpointed areas that were at least 5,000 square kilometers (1,930 square miles) of connected, federally managed lands that contained ideal wolf habitat. The network would cover nearly 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 acres).

Beavers are also key to the plan because of their effects on the ecosystem. The authors write, “By felling trees and shrubs and building dams, beavers enrich fish habitat, increase water and sediment retention, maintain water flows during drought, provide wet fire breaks, improve water quality, initiate recovery of incised channels, increase carbon sequestration, and generally enhance habitat for many riparian plant and animal species.”

The paper was published in the journal BioScience.

Saving Species

Researchers say there are few negatives to increasing the habitats of these animals and encouraging their presence. Livestock-related conflicts with wolves are one possible concern.

“However, phasing down livestock grazing on federal lands within the proposed network could help decrease such conflicts,” Wolf says. “Also, our proposal calls for the development of an action plan to manage possible conflicts in cases where wolves or beavers leave the proposed Western Rewilding Network. Ultimately, we feel that the potential drawbacks of our proposal are far outweighed by the diverse benefits.”

If these proposed steps aren’t taken, researchers are concerned that 92 threatened and endangered plant and animal species within the network could be at even greater risk of going extinct.

The benefits will happen, but they might take time, researchers say.

“We envision a ‘rewilded’ and resilient American West where native biodiversity flourishes, more carbon is sequestered by vegetation, and the impacts of droughts and heat waves are partially reduced,” Wolf says. “If our rewilding plan is implemented, benefits would accrue over time. Although we could see some positive changes within a few years, the complete set of benefits may take decades to be realized.”

View Article Sources
  1. Ripple, William J., et al. "Rewilding The American West." Bioscience, 2022, doi:10.1093/biosci/biac069

  2. "America the Beautiful." U.S. Department of the Interior.

  3. co-lead author Christopher Wolf, a postdoctoral scholar in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University

  4. "Scientists Issue Plan for Rewilding the American West." EurekAlert!.