June 16, 2024

Opinion Naija

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The beavers returning to the desert

One small, plucky animal has an outsized ability to transform its environment, helping to replenish river ecosystems even in the desert.

Standing at the edge of a precipice, under a scorching sun in eastern Utah, you can see nothing but the state’s infamous red rocks and towering buttes for miles. No trees to offer welcome shade, the only vegetation being dry scrub that clings to the flat, dusty plains, while the sheer cliffsides are barren of life. But if you happen to glance down at the dizzying depths of the canyon that lies at the bottom of the desert sandstone mountains, you’d see a lush oasis, blooming with green vegetation, the Price River snaking through the rock even on the hottest of summer days. And if you scrambled down, and watched patiently for long enough, you might even spot some beavers – the very architects of this thriving wetland landscape, smack bang in the middle of the desert.

Getting these beaver populations to thrive in Utah’s desert landscape has been a challenging task for Emma Doden, a masters student in translocated beaver ecology at Utah State University. Doden and several other researchers set out to reintroduce beavers to the drought and fire-stricken land. Water shortages are severe here, and much of the river ecosystem is degraded. Doden’s primary goal is to restore the quantity and quality of water in eastern Utah, whose waterways sustain an array of wildlife, riverbank vegetation and endangered fish species.

“In desert environments, water can be very limiting, but it serves as the lifeline to so many species that live out there, including livestock,” she says.

As the world heats up and extreme weather becomes more frequent, scientists have been rushing to reintegrate beavers into struggling ecosystems and dry landscapes

Water shortages in the region have been made worse by river degradation, caused by irrigation, pollution and mismanagement. Seeing the effects of this played a large part in Doden’s drive to bring beavers back to Utah.