Rural Alaska

As beavers gain foothold in Arctic Alaska, some see benefits in how they reshape the landscape

When most animals move into a new area, they don’t significantly change it. Beavers, on the other hand, leave a mark on the landscape that you can sometimes see from space.

Swarming ponds, building dams and expanding waterways, beavers are moving farther and farther into the Arctic, and are changing what the region looks like.

“We think of these beaver ponds like oases in the Arctic, oases of warmth, biodiversity, permafrost thaw,” said Ken Tape, an ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “We used to think Arctic streams were these little free-flowing things about as wide as my office. And it turns out that once beavers get involved, that’s not what Arctic streams look like. They look like wetlands because of all these beaver dams.”

Tape — together with Benjamin Jones, research assistant professor at the Water and Environmental Research Center at UAF; biology doctoral student Sebastian Zavoico; and Northwest Alaska writer Seth Kantner — traveled by snowmachine from Nome to Kotzebue in recent weeks to study how beavers are changing the landscape.

While the implications of beavers’ increasing presence aren’t yet clear, several Northwest Alaska residents welcome the change. Beavers, they say, provide an additional food source for locals and create a more diverse environment.

“Unlike other animals in the Arctic that sort of migrate or move with the seasons, beavers are very reliable,” Kantner said. “They are almost like money in the bank: If you ever get hungry or we have starvation or need furs and need food, they’re an incredible resource.”

Moving north

The number of beaver ponds in the Alaska Arctic doubled between 2003 and 2017, with the animals moving into tundra regions farther north, Tape said. The data comes from the analysis of ponds through satellite imagery and aerial photography.


Stream by stream, the population is spreading from forested areas in the Interior into the Northwest Arctic. In the 1970s and ‘80s, beavers started to occupy the Nome area, where there’s a lot of groundwater and shrubby vegetation available year-round. In the 1990s and early 2000s, they started to move to Kotzebue.

Kantner said that at Baldwin Peninsula behind Kotzebue, there were almost no beavers 30 to 40 years ago, and “now, every little puddle seems to have a beaver lodge on it.” Kotzebue hunter and trapper Lance Kramer agreed.

“We first started noticing beavers back around 1995 behind Kotzebue,” said Kramer, who is familiar with most of the lakes and the landscape around Kotzebue. “Every year there’s just more and more and more from those three lodges in 1995, now there’s over 65 lodges today behind town.”

[From 2017: ’Tundra be dammed’: Beavers head north, leaving their mark on the Arctic]

Following the beavers

To understand how beavers are changing the environment they’re moving into, researchers spent nine days traveling more than 400 miles on snowmachines earlier this month, visiting beaver sites on the Seward and Baldwin peninsulas. As part of a project funded by the National Science Foundation, they took water samples, measured snow depth and ice thickness and noted whether there’s unfrozen water at the bottom of ponds, Tape said.

“When we’re looking at how they change the landscape, we don’t actually have to see the beaver, which is kind of funny and slightly disappointing,” Tape said. “We were not looking so much at the behavior of beavers, but we’re looking at their impacts.”

Navigating in whiteout conditions, transporting heavy scientific equipment, looking for unfrozen water, drilling through 1 1/2 meters of ice — those were some of the challenges they faced during the trip, Tape said.

“The blizzard was our biggest challenge by far — having to hunker down and sit tight for a day, which we’re not very good at,” Tape said. “We’re eager to get out there and make measurements.”

After the blizzard, the group dug out from the snow and moved to their next stop: Serpentine Hot Springs. In addition to providing a repose for tired travelers, the hot springs, with unfrozen water at the surface, also entertained them with a long-awaited beaver sighting.

Researchers knew that the beavers have used springs and hot springs to gain a foothold in the Arctic because those are the first places where the habitat is really available, Tape said. So out of curiosity, they set up time-lapse cameras to observe them at Serpentine Hot Springs.

“Sure enough, here comes the beaver,” Tape said.

The group also met a local family at the hot springs and spoke to them about beavers and the region.

“You always learn a lot from talking to those knowledgeable folks — about beavers, about their history, about the history of the entire area,” Tape said.

Kantner, who was born along the Kobuk River, has his own experience to share. When he was growing up, there were already beavers in the area and people used them for meat and fur. He said he always had a lot of respect for beavers as animals.

“I personally always admired them because, you know, it lived very close to where I lived and had been hard-working all the time as I am too,” he said. “We sort of felt like we lived a little bit more like beavers because they were just a mile or two away in their latitudes with their hard work and hardscrabble life, and there we were, in our little sod igloo with a tunnel entrance.”

Changing the Arctic

When beavers make ponds, they alter the hydrology and tend to thaw the permafrost, Tape said. This can be a big issue in locations with a lot of ice-rich permafrost, like the Baldwin Peninsula and the northern part of the Seward Peninsula, though for now, beavers are actually occupying a relatively small part of the Arctic, Tape said.

“It’s not that every single beaver pond is thawing permafrost, but a lot of them do,” Tape said. “We think that they’re accelerating climate change. Is it a huge deal? Not clear right now.”


Kantner pointed out that of all the causes for the warming Arctic, an increased beaver presence might not be the biggest. “The land is definitely melting but I’m not about to blame that on beaver,” he said.

How the increased beaver population is affecting or will affect existing wildlife is an open question. Overall, scientists predict that the oases created by beaver activity will lead to more biological production in the water and on land, with more organisms thriving and shrubs growing, Tape said.

Some believe that beaver dams can negatively affect fish, Tape said — for example, by blocking a small stream and preventing fish from migrating. But warmer water can also create a better spawning environment for species like salmon, Tape added.

Kramer, who traps beavers from mid-November to the end of December, said that while beavers can pose a potential danger to sources of drinking water for residents, the increased presence of the animals is actually good news. Beavers expand the water system on the Baldwin Peninsula, improving the conditions for fish and insects, which in turn creates more food for minks, otters and martens.

Beavers, he said, “really enhance our area by making ponds deeper, making waterways deeper through their dams to their lodges. If it wasn’t for a beaver dam, so many ponds wouldn’t exist ... They help everything survive better, everything in our country.”

Some Northwest Alaska hunters rely more and more on beaver meat, especially now that caribou hunting is rare and scarce, Kantner and Kramer said.

In Kramer’s experience, beaver meat is also one of the best baits.

“Everything of the country likes to eat beaver,” he said. “They’re a very good critter to trap because they’re used so much. The hides, of course, I get them tanned and I sell them to local people here for hats and things like that. And then the carcasses, they are good to eat — a lot of protein, a lot of fat.

“I’m actually glad they’re here.”

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.