Beavers as Partners in Oil Sands Reclamation

GIS mapping comparison illustrates how ponds with beavers had 9 times more open water, even during severe drought – beavers may be important natural partners in wetlands restoration.


Beavers and human beings have some things in common. They’re big on land disturbance. It’s a kind of obsession for both.

This presents challenges in the oil sands where beaver tend to want to disturb installations and infrastructures that humans already disturbed – and vice versa. So, in 2009 CEMA – Cumulative Effects Management Association funded an independent research project by Dr. Glynnis Hood, Associate Professor of Environmental Science & Studies at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus. The objective was to complete an extensive review of scientific and unpublished literature to determine the potential effects of varying river flows on habitat of semi-aquatic mammals.

CEMA is the oil sands regional environmental stakeholder group charged with gathering and identifying cumulative elements and assessing mitigating factors related to oil sands development on the environment. Dr. Hood’s report findings were recently presented at a public forum at the University of Alberta’s Calgary Centre, to an audience of alumni and interested members of the public.

Dr. Hood is the author of the recently released book entitled “The Beaver Manifesto” She shared some of the aspects of that human-animal conflict research data as well her CEMA report.

Her focus in the CEMA report is related to potential increased water withdrawals from the Athabasca River, used for industrial processing and separation of oil from the bituminous sandy soil. There are several water-users on the river, including municipalities, agriculture, a number of pulp and paper mills, as well as proliferating oil sands operations.

Over the past few years, oil sands operators have improved their processing capacities and technologies so that some 85% of water withdrawn from the river is re-used; Alberta provincial environmental laws also set caps on industrial water withdrawals during seasonal low flow periods. Oil sands operators have established on-site water reserves for such times. However, there is still much to learn about how water withdrawals affect semi-aquatic mammals (muskrats, beavers, mink and river otters), especially in winter.

Beavers have an amazing ability to create massive impoundments that can offer massive water recharging to wetlands and ground water, equivalent to that of a 200 year flood. As some 65% of the oil sands region is made up of wetlands, the role of the beaver in ultimate reclamation will be invaluable. However, that also requires that beaver populations be maintained and human-beaver conflicts reduced.

Likewise, based on research, it appears that a symbiotic relationship exists between other small aquatic mammals such as river otters, mink and muskrat – so Dr. Hood’s work touched on all four.

To gain historical perspective, Dr. Hood, met with dozens of local elders and trappers and reviewed hundreds of pages of diaries and documents dating back to the early fur trade in the 1700’s. CEMA’s interest in muskrats was related to the animal’s importance to First Nation communities.

According to the recent testimony of trappers, historically it was possible to trap 300 muskrat a day from various locations; some people told of having to rent two float planes to fly out their furs. Even with such an astonishing ratio of trapping, muskrat populations were vibrant.

Not so the beaver. It was surprising to learn that by the 1940s, the beaver had all been trapped out of the Wood Buffalo park region and had to be reintroduced in 1948. Once reintroduced, they thrived and repopulated quickly as lifestyles changed and trapping declined.

A major concern to oil sands operators and environmentalists are issues related to water volume and flows and seasonal variations in the Peace-Athabasca Delta. Dr. Hood presented visual evidence of the devastating impact of the Bennett Dam (that began operations in late 1960s on the Peace River) which drastically reduced water levels throughout the delta.

None-the-less, the Athabasca and Peace Rivers are an extraordinary powerhouse. The Athabasca’s mean annual discharge reach some 20,860,000 dam3 at Fort McMurray and 68,200,000 dam3 for the Peace at Peace Point. This is many times that of any other river in Alberta where urban, industrial and agricultural withdrawals are substantially more than that of the oil sands in the north. Fast growing cities like Calgary in south are situated on the edge of the desert-like Palliser Triangle, and subject to severe drought and oversubscription.

However, there are concerns related to the expanding oil sands developments that center around water withdrawals -specifically in winter.

Dr. Hood explained that small river mammals, particularly beaver, create winter reserve caches of food under the water in fall. Their lodges have at least two under water entrances, which allow them free access to swim out and access their food reserves, under the winter ice pack. However, if unrestricted industrial water withdrawals occur which greatly lower the below-ice winter water levels, the beaver’s food caches may be frozen in or their lodge entries may become blocked by ice. This can also be caused by seasonal events like sudden melts/freezes or dam flow restrictions.

If the beaver succeeds in escaping its iced-in lodges, it must surface to search for alternate food. Beavers become easy prey for predators once on the ice. These factors can dramatically reduce the populations of all small aquatic mammals.

Dr. Hood noted that winter water withdrawals from rivers in large urban centers have the same impact.

Consequently, appropriate management of winter water withdrawals, including considering natural weather changes, are key to managing oil sands environmental impact.

Likewise, in terms of ultimate reclamation, beaver populations will be important helpers. Dr. Hood did a GIS mapping comparison of over a decade of air photos in east-central Alberta. Ponds that had beaver populations exhibited 9 times more open water, and this was true even in severe drought periods of 1950 and 2002 (a record dry year). In 2002, beaver ponds had 60% more water, than those same ponds had in 1950 when there was more precipitation, but no beavers!

Dr. Hood’s work also focuses on reducing beaver-human conflicts. Dr. Hood is working with Alberta Parks to implement- a “pond leveller” – a caged, flexible drainage pipe that runs through the dam in a natural beaver impoundment area, allowing the beaver to maintain a home. Yet when flood water levels reach a height that imperils nearby human enterprises or facilities, the pipe is triggered to draw water and release sufficient water to safely reduce the water level.

Now in the test stages, if successful, this method will allow the beaver to continue living in its chosen region where it will fulfill a natural environmental purpose to replenish the wetlands and recharge the water table, while at the same time, the device will protect human facilities from flooding.

Dr. Hood points out the wisdom and cost-efficiency of such an invention. “It’s about a $600. per device, versus trying to bring a backhoe into a remote, muskeg area for about $200-300. per hour to drain a pond that ultimately you really want to maintain for the health of the regional environment and all eco-systems, not just the beaver.”

By assessing decades of observations of wildlife patterns and combining an intimate understanding of the life cycles and habits of these small aquatic mammals we appreciate their role in the larger ecosystem. Then by applying common hydrological principles with simple, easy-to-maintain inventions like the pond levelers, Dr. Hood’s team is finding that we can ‘leave it to beaver’ to help maintain wetland health and ground water recharge. And humans can work side by side with nature, whether in an oil sands or urban/industrial context.


2 thoughts on “Beavers as Partners in Oil Sands Reclamation

  1. What impact has the oil sands had on the beaver that are there? With the destruction of the forests what do they build their dams with. The article paints a rosy picture but the sands development is an environmental nightmare with carbon capturing tree removal, stacks pumping toxins into the air, the river’s being polluted affecting all marine life and all this for a filthy goo product that further pollutes through spills, pipeline breakdowns and shipping accidents and refinery toxins.
    You make it sound like these happy beavers just love the sound of industry. Please.

    • Hi Brenda, Dr. Hood has a whole book out on her work with beavers. The world’s largest beaver dam (that can also be seen from outer space) is up in that neck of the woods. Here’s a story of a guy who just went to see it in person. Note that he says the foliage is very thick. The distrubed land of the oil sands is about the size of Toronto – and while it is true that animals are displaced, like the raccoons in Toronto many species find a way to work their way back in. During construction there is an effort to keep the animals out of work places as I understand it; after, there are very interesting reclamation practices. Before any oil sands construction starts, a complete Environmental Impact Assessment is done with teams of experts in all relevant areas – not just sciences like hydrology, geology, biology, even anthropology and socio-economic impacts. A full program from start-up to reclamation and decommissioning must be submitted before they start. As for the filthy goo, the beavers were already swimming in it hundreds of years ago: From Charles Mair’s treaty diary of 1899: “We were now traversing perhaps the most interesting region in all the North. In the neighbourhood of McMurray there are several tar-wells, so called, and there, if a hole is scraped in the bank, it slowly fills in with tar mingled with sand. This is separated by boiling, and is used, in its native state, for gumming canoes and boats. Farther up are immense towering banks, the tar oozing at every pore, and underlaid by great overlapping dykes of disintegrated limestone, alternating with lofty clay exposures, crowned with poplar, spruce and pine. On the 15th we were still following the right bank, and, anon, past giant clay escarpments along it, everywhere streaked with oozing tar, and smelling like an old ship.

      These tar cliffs are here hundreds of feet high, of a bold and impressive grandeur, and crowned with firs which seem dwarfed to the passer-by. The impregnated clay appears to be constantly falling off the almost sheer face of the slate-brown cliffs, in great sheets, which plunge into the river’s edge in broken masses. The opposite river bank is much more depressed, and is clothed with dense forest.

      The tar, whatever it may be otherwise, is a fuel, and burned in our camp-fires like coal. That this region is stored with a substance of great economic value is beyond all doubt, and, when the hour of development comes, it will, I believe, prove to be one of the wonders of Northern Canada. We were all deeply impressed by this scene of Nature’s chemistry, and realized what a vast storehouse of not only hidden but exposed resources we possess in this enormous country. What is unseen can only be conjectured; but what is seen would make any region famous. We now came once more to outcrops of limestone in regular layers, with disintegrated masses overlying them, or sandwiched between their solid courses. A lovely niche, at one point, was scooped out of the rock, over the coping of which poured a thin sheet of water, evidently impregnated with mineral, and staining the rock down which it poured with variegated tints of bronze, beautified by the morning sun.”

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