Bringing Beaver Back

The Intuitive Science of Watershed Restoration

Douglas Balmain
3 min readDec 1, 2021


Photo by Tim Umphreys on Unsplash.

As I walk through our arid Western landscapes, I try to imagine how the land might have looked prior to European influence. It would be unrecognizable in comparison to the land as we now know it. How wondrous it would be to see this continent’s wild ecosystems as they had evolved to be. Beaver in every drainage, 60 million bison fertilizing the grasslands, old-growth forest networks, grizzlies and elk in the lowlands, abundant plant and species diversity: Balance and Abundance.

“It’s estimated that 400 million [beaver] lived on the continent. That breaks down to between 5 and 30 beaver for every kilometer of stream or river on the continent.” [1]

The wholesale slaughter of beaver began in the 16th century when European explorers arrived and entered into trade relations with Indigenous tribes. The Eurasian beaver population had already been decimated in most of the U.K. and European countries. When the colonial-explorers learned of the continent’s dense population of North American beaver, the species was immediately targeted by extractive foreign industries. The European perfume industry wanted the castoreum from the beaver’s scent glands and the fashion industry wanted their pelts, primarily for high-fashion beaver hats.

Not only did the beaver-hat fashion trend nearly extinct the North American beaver, the influence of Western greed and ownership that fueled the frenzied eradication of their species poisoned the whole of the American interior. New competition amongst the Indigenous peoples, ignited by false European-Native alliances and trade pressures, led to the outbreak of intertribal war. The Beaver Wars marked the beginning of a period of war, conquest, genocide, and extraction that never ceased—but only continued on under new campaign names—until this land’s native species, ecosystems, and Indigenous cultures were left in ruins.

Only in recent years—as we face relentless fires, persisting drought, desertification, and the wide scale depletion of our water tables—have we begun to look back earnestly on our impacts and assess our oversights.

Our modern agencies and scientific communities, both abroad and in the U.S., have finally begun to take beaver and their significance as…