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Hot Dam
September 2, 2023

Hot Dam

Reading Time: 7 minutes

I Have a Radical Proposal to Make New York a Better Place to Live, A radical, beaver-filled idea to improve city parks., How beavers can help make parks more diverse.

Imagine a New York City brimming with life. A city where bullfrogs sing in marshes, where otters and muskrats frolic along the waterfront, and where kingfishers perform aerial acrobatics into ponds thick with fish.

This may seem like a distant dream. But what if I told you that New York could take a meaningful step toward this urban paradise with a little help from a humble rodent?

I’m talking, of course, about beavers.

Unlike the brown rats that terrorize the city, beavers are native to North America and a key part of New York City’s history and ecology. And while you may think that a concrete jungle is not the right place for an animal that clogs up streams with dams, I’m here to tell you that restoring a population of urban beavers could help bring New York City—and, perhaps, other cities like it—into a more prosperous, ecological future.

My yearning for a New York City beaver began in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, my local green space, and a 526-acre landlocked patch of lawns, forests, and waterways in the center of the borough. Although most of the park fills up daily with birthday parties, off-leash dogs, and brass bands, it’s also home to a network of shady glens, murmuring creeks, and still ponds.

Despite the almost wildernesslike quality of these hidden woodlands—and to my endless disappointment—the park is devoid of much wildlife larger than a rabbit or a raccoon. (There are also swans, which are an invasive species and can be very territorial.) That’s mostly for good reason; this mosaic of habitat likely isn’t big enough to host something as big as a deer or a fox, which would probably come into conflict with the aforementioned birthday parties, dogs, and brass bands.

But beavers, I realized one day, are not particularly large—and they prefer to stay in the water, away from dogs and small children. The question was: Would it be possible to introduce a small population of these semiaquatic rodents somewhere like Prospect Park?

‘Oh, I think it’s possible. I totally do,’ Benjamin Dittbrenner, a beaver expert at Northeastern University, told me.

Beavers can live in a relatively small area, Dittbrenner said, as long as there’s enough food and water. Prospect Park has plenty of water in its creeks, ponds, and lake—and those waterways are full of potential beaver food like pondweed. Beavers will also gnaw down trees along the water to open up space and stimulate the growth of the shrubby vegetation they love to eat, Dittbrenner said.

Some parkgoers, of course, might throw a fit over the potential for beavers to dam up waterways. But the lake in Prospect Park is more than 50 acres wide and 7 feet deep—and with big-enough lakes, beavers often won’t go through the trouble of building a dam, opting to build their lodges on the existing body of water, Emily Fairfax, a beaver expert at California State University Channel Islands, told me. Beavers don’t seem to be particularly picky with their choice of habitat either. ‘They’re building in stormwater drainage impoundments and roadside ditches, and just really crazy spots,’ Dittbrenner told me.

That’s not to say bringing beavers to the big city would be easy.

In a place like Prospect Park, if a beaver were to dam up a creek, those creeks could flood, submerging nearby trails and amenities. Plus, the beavers would go to town on some of the park’s trees.

But these problems are manageable. To start, beavers don’t like to move very far over land, Fairfax said, meaning that only the trees closest to water would be at risk for gnawing—and the city could wrap fences around more important trees. The park could also plant some of the beavers’ preferred species, like willows, to supplement their food options, Dittbrenner suggested.

When it comes to flooding, as dedicated to hydrological interference as beavers are, humans are also pretty crafty. ‘Beavers: amazing engineers. People: also amazing engineers,’ Fairfax said.

We’ve invented various ways of outsmarting beavers with contraptions like ‘pond levelers,’ which drain water out of beaver ponds and limit flood potential. When trails do flood, the park can build signs to help people understand why the trails are flooding—Fairfax noted that ongoing environmental education is important for any urban beaver population. And when in doubt, the city could always build a boardwalk to help parkgoers cross over newly muddy patches. ‘People love boardwalks,’ Fairfax said.

Then there’s the question of population control. Beavers are social animals, Dittbrenner said, so you’d want to have more than one. But if you stick a male and a female beaver in the same park, you’ll end up with a new crop of baby beavers soon enough—and beaver children setting off into the big city could spell trouble.

So instead of introducing a family of beavers to Prospect Park, perhaps we could take the Jurassic Park approach and introduce an all-female group of beavers. Fairfax noted that in a completely single-sex environment, the beavers might try to leave the park to find a mate, but she also suggested that maybe Prospect Park could become a rehabilitation site where injured beavers would heal before being relocated elsewhere.

Speaking of injuries, if you’ve ever seen beavers’ impressive orange incisors, you might feel … nervous about releasing those iron-fortified teeth into the streets of New York. But although beavers have occasionally been recorded attacking humans and could bite a curious dog, they are unlikely to do so unless they feel threatened or are being actively harassed (or, in rare instances, are infected with rabies), Fairfax told me in an email. She added that people can keep their dogs under control to prevent any conflicts—and that ‘you don’t need to be an athlete to outrun a beaver on land.’

Dittbrenner also said via email that beavers sometimes get a bad rap for spreading the digestive parasite Giardia—but plenty of animals (including humans) can spread Giardia, and the parasite may already be in many urban parks. (If you regularly drink water straight from the pond in a public park, maybe consider not doing that.)

OK, so, if you’ve made it this far: We’ve got tree gnashing, potential flooding, and a small but nonzero chance of bites and disease—which may seem like a lot of trouble for a couple of beavers. But after immersing myself in the beaver literature, I’m convinced this mission is well worth the hassle.

To start: By engineering their ecosystems, beavers create wetlands and build habitat for other animals, including ducks, herons, amphibians, and fish—which could help to turn New York City into the kind of biodiverse oasis I described above. If you frequent the park, you’ve spotted some of these animals already; it could be positively brimming with them. Dam-building can also help decrease erosion, improve water quality, and even reduce flood risk during storms.

Then there’s the fact that beavers are an important part of New York history. The local beaver population was a major reason the Dutch settled around the harbor in the 1600s. (The Dutch slaughtered beavers for their fur, but we could choose to leave that part of 1600s New York in the past.) The beavers’ significance to New York is still memorialized in the two beavers adorning the city’s flag.

Beavers can also bring a lot of joy to a community. In 2006, beavers moved into Alhambra Creek, which runs right through downtown Martinez, California. Initially, the city wanted to kill the animals because of flooding concerns, but many Martinez residents quickly protested the removal plan. This was partly because of local political quarrels, Heidi Perryman, a Martinez local and beaver advocate, told me—but at a 2007 City Council meeting to discuss the beavers’ fate, many locals also expressed their appreciation for the animals.

‘I mean, these were beavers right in the middle of town,’ Perryman said. ‘So you could go to Starbucks, get your morning latte, and stroll on onto the patio, and you could watch beavers—beaver kits, actually—playing in the water.’

Eventually, the city installed a device to prevent the creek from flooding and wrapped some of the trees to prevent gnawing. The beavers, meanwhile, got to work transforming Alhambra Creek into a lush, vegetated habitat filled with animals like otters and green herons. Even though the beavers moved away from Martinez a few years ago, the city still hosts an annual Beaver Festival.

Although supporting beavers in New York City is more complicated, these animals are already knocking on our doors. The first beaver to live in the city in more than 200 years—named José—moved into the Bronx River in 2007, and lived there until 2018. For a few years, José was even joined by a second beaver, named Justin. (Justin … Beaver.) Beavers also live on Staten Island, and last year, a beaver was spotted at Domino Park along the East River in Brooklyn.

Letting beavers permanently colonize denser parts of the city—and asking New Yorkers to live in peace with a large rodent—would definitely come with growing pains. But maybe those growing pains are the point. Spaces like Prospect and Central parks were designed in the 19th century by Frederick Law Olmsted, whose landscaping philosophy was not so much to foster nature as to mimic it. The landscapes in each park are not holdovers from a pre-urbanized New York City, but rather carefully curated gardens designed as a facsimile of the ecosystem—a way for people to pantomime a wilderness experience without risking contact with any of the entropy that defines real wilderness.

What if, instead of trying to manage around our local ecosystems, we let our ecosystems manage us for a change? What if we let some beavers chop down a few trees, creating little glades of open sky next to our ponds? What if we embraced some flooding around our parks as biodiverse wetlands and vernal pools replaced sterile, trimmed lawns? What if, as Fairfax suggested, we reconnected Prospect Park to New York harbor by digging a canal through Brooklyn toward the East River or the bay?

Four hundred years ago, beavers covered New York City, building dams and engineering wetlands that shaped and nourished the local ecosystem. In our own efforts to manipulate and control nature, we’ve driven countless species toward extinction and pushed the world into climate crisis. Beavers are, in Dittbrenner’s words, ‘chaos-makers.’ But maybe it’s time to stop separating ourselves from the chaos that is ecology, and instead embrace something disorderly, bold, and revolutionary—something, dare I say, bucktoothed.


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