A new study hopes to provide answers for Arctic communities who are already feeling the impact of beavers on the tundra.
As more and more beavers migrate northward, there’s still a lot we don’t know about how they are changing the Northwest Territories.
Despite their diminutive stature, beavers’ habit of altering waterways can have an outsize impact on the terrain they inhabit – and, by extension, surrounding communities.
A new project called Barin, which stands for Beavers and socio-ecological Resilience in Inuit Nunangat, is looking at beaver-related changes to streams and lakes, and how those changes are impacting people.
The project is being led by principle investigators Helen Wheeler (Anglia Ruskin University) and Phillip Marsh (Wilfrid Laurier University) in collaboration with Herb Nakimayak from the Inuvialuit Fish Joint Management Committee and other partners.
In Alaska, scientists such as Ken Tape have been studying the beaver issue for years. In 2021, Tape formed the Arctic Beaver Observation Network (A-Bon) to help researchers from Alaska, Canada, Europe and Asia collaborate and share findings with local land managers.
Canada is catching up, but Tape says the nation is a few paces behind in studying and understanding the scale of the problem.
The first step is figuring out where the change is happening. The second step is figuring out its impact.
“For beavers, that becomes very complex,” Tape said. “Beavers affect all aspects of lowland ecosystems: permafrost, carbon cycling, fish, water quality… I mean, it totally transforms a place from this narrow stream to a sprawling wetland.”
While beaver impact has been extensively studied in the south, it’s unclear how much of that research will apply in the North.
“It’s a very different place,” said Tape. “There are two main differences I usually cite with the Arctic. Number one, it’s held together by permafrost. So the ground is much more susceptible to change resulting from hydrology.
“The other big difference is that these are often temperature-limited systems. In other words, the water is too cold to allow a lot of biota to exist there. And you’re effectively warming it up.”
Tape, along with Marsh, Wheeler and a number of other A-Bon researchers, published Beaver Engineering: Tracking a New Disturbance in the Arctic to chart some of these changes.
Low water makes work ‘even more important’
With Barin, Wheeler hopes to produce research that answers key questions for communities in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region specifically, and a pathway for action.
“We’re being guided as much as we can by the FJMC,” said Wheeler, using an initialism for the Inuvialuit Fish Joint Management Committee.
“Ultimately, we are trying to create a product that will be useful – whether those are mechanisms for ongoing community-based monitoring or data products that can actually be used and shared.”
For Nakimayak, who chairs the committee, this study has only become more pressing since it began.
“Beavers have a major impact on fish and fish habitat,” he said. “With the low water this year, it’s just compounded the issue. It’s even more important for us to be doing this research.”
The study is focused on Aklavik, Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik, as well as watersheds along the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway. Nakimayak says he has witnessed significant changes in these areas first-hand.
“There were eight dams in Hans Creek last year, and this year there were 10,” he said.
“Hans Creek feeds into the Husky Lakes, and it is one of the major fish-bearing streams in the area. With the amount of activity – whether that’s humans fishing in Husky Lakes, and the beavers – that’s going to really affect our ecosystem. Whales and seals also rely on fish in the Husky Lakes.”
Wheeler says the project is looking to address three main issues: how much the beaver population is growing, how that’s impacting fish and fish habitat and, in turn, how those changes are affecting surrounding communities.
It may sound simple, but the scope of work this will require is ambitious: using NASA satellite data and statistical modelling to predict beaver movement and hydrological changes, holding community workshops and gathering oral histories, plus on-the-ground data gathering and permafrost mapping.
Barin is also linking with an ongoing Canadian Space Agency project led by Marsh that uses a satellite to measure water level in all of the lakes in the area.
Yannan Wang of the University of Guelph is working on the beaver movement modelling side of the task, supervised by Ben DeVries. They presented preliminary results at the 44th Canadian Symposium on Remote Sensing in Yellowknife this past June.
“Basically, what I’m doing is developing a series of statistical models to map the existing and potential ecological impact of beaver ponds using Landsat data developed by NASA,” said Wang. “The data … captures the fluctuations of surface wetness over the past 40 years.”
Because the Arctic is already undergoing significant changes due to climate change, the challenge for researchers like Wang and DeVries is to pinpoint which changes can be attributed to beavers specifically.
“If you see an unexpected change, or what we sometimes refer to as a break, that break often corresponds to a specific type of disturbance or a specific type of change,” said DeVries. “Our hypothesis is that when beavers occupy a region, that change tends to be quite sudden.”
DeVries and Wang hope these models will serve as useful tools for Inuvialuit communities looking to understand beaver occupancy and its impacts.
Why are beavers taking over?
On the ground, researchers from Wilfrid Laurier, Anglia Ruskin and the University of Montreal are joined by community researchers and members of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation’s Imaryuk monitoring program.
They, along with members of the region’s hunting and trapping committees, are measuring streamflow, stream water chemistry and lake levels.
Marsh, the Wilfrid Laurier researcher, has been working in and around the Trail Valley Creek research station outside Inuvik since the 1980s. He says the change has been relatively sudden.
“It was around 2004, 2005 that we first started seeing beavers, but there didn’t seem to be that many,” said Marsh. “I kind-of ignored them until the FJMC approached me about three years ago and said we really needed to start looking at the beavers.
“Just before COVID, I had students doing field work at the Trail Valley Creek site and sure enough, there were extensive populations of beavers and beaver dams throughout that watershed.”
Innumerable people are now involved in this project and a mind-blowing amount of research projects happening concurrently, both in the NWT and across the country, to understand the problem. Ultimately, all of that work is being done on behalf of communities in the area.
So what does Nakimayak, speaking on behalf of the FJMC and Inuvialuit communities, hope to get out of it?
“At the end of the day, we hope that this project will help us understand why beavers are taking over in such large numbers,” said Nakimayak.
“These are places the Inuvialuit rely on for their livelihood, for their way of life. We want to ensure that we’re protecting that with this research.”
By Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Sep 11, 2023