This is a really fun article written by grad student Kathleen Onorevole for UNC-CH Marine Sciences Graduate Student Blog. She writes very intelligently about a dissertation being dramatically changed by some stubborn beaver activity in Huntley Meadows in VA. (Where our good friend Ann Cameron Siegal has been photographing for years.)
What this author doesn’t suspect is that dissertations were also changed by beaver activity for Dr. Glynnis Hood (who was trying to research drought when beaver ponds kept ruining her data), Dr. Suzanne Fouty (who had a nice hydrology study arranged which beavers ruined), Dr. Michael Pollock (whose salmon research was ‘falsely’ inflated by beavers and recently for Dr. Arthur Gold who was just trying to research Nitrogen when beavers kept moving in and messing up his study.
I’m not an grad student, so I don’t know the fancy German word for it. I just say: beavers change things. It’s what they do.
Maybe Kathleen thinks this has never happened before. We could show her many times where smart researchers either hop on the beaver train, or get off the tracks. Right? This is a fun article and I plan on quoting her heavily! You should go read the whole thing, though. It’s well worth it.
Most productivity gurus say that when you hit a wall, you should switch tasks. This is how I ended up reading a paper about beavers who managed to hijack a wetland restoration for their benefit. So congratulations! You’re in the right place to learn some fancy philosophy terms and think about wetlands from a whooole new perspective.
The wetland in question is Huntley Meadows Park, a Fairfax County Park in Alexandria, VA, just south of DC. The 1500-acre park is surrounded by a busy metropolitan area and bordered by I-95, but you wouldn’t know it from the photos. . In the early 1990s, restoration plans began, prompted by a decrease in rare bird sightings coupled with the realization that intervention was necessary to maintain a functional wetland. This is where the beavers come in.
This was news to me, I knew something about the history of Huntley Meadows and have even met the former beaver director there, who’s now the director of Laguna de Santa Rosa. But I didn’t know that a dissertation was done on HM by Dr. Gwendolin McCrea. And I didn’t know this term, which fascinates me:
The second idea is umwelt, an animal’s view of the external world. Umwelt strikes me as the framework that makes stories like Watership Down possible: animals are assumed to have narratives of sort as they respond to and navigate the world on their own terms, unaware of human motivations.
Suffice it to say that the beaver umwelt vision of the park was different than the park planners with their charts and research. They wanted a path to go here and the wetlands here, and you know what beavers wanted.
Maybe the solution is to kill all the beavers? Nope, park visitors like them and would not be happy. Huntley Meadows also couldn’t outsource them to other local wetlands, who already had their own beaver communities. This brought up a catch-22: the beavers had been partially responsible for people’s attraction to the park, but the wetland couldn’t persist with the beavers present. The solution, it turned out, was to “manage beaver behavior without managing the beavers themselves.” A team from Clemson University developed a pipe system that dispersed water flow, lessening the environmental stimulus that would normally prompt beavers to create dams. As McCrea explains, the pipes accounted for the beavers’ umwelt– and exploited it. One problem solved! The beavers could continue to live in Huntley Meadows, building fewer dams and therefore not damning the wetland.
Yes, so they installed a flow device. And it altered the beaver effect enough that the park could exist and the beavers exist. I guess in Virginia it is worth a dissertation, but sheesh, it happens all the time. It even happened in Martinez. That’s no reason to start using German words to describe it.
So humans were the power brokers in that scenario, but the tables were about to turn. When planners were designing observation trails, they identified a key value of the dispositif: visitors loved watching the beavers putter around, meaning that the beavers had to be visible for those people to continue visiting. This led to restoration elements designed just for the beavers, including a dam [SHE MEANS LODGE] that encroached on the boardwalk and a stand of trees that was fenced on a rotating basis. In McCrea’s words, the accommodations “enroll[ed] the beavers themselves as an element of the governing dispositif directed toward the creation of environmental subjects.” Translation: the beavers were calling the shots now.
I have to say I like the idea of protecting a stand of trees on a rotating basis so that the public can see the chewing but the park can keep some trees. I like the idea that people’s interest in beavers shaped public planning, and ahem, can we think of where else that happened?
The author is not totally sold on the idea of not killing all the beavers but she thinks it’s interesting. She ends with a reference to the dissertation. Do you think we’re in the reference section? Bob Kobres is their anyway you can find me a copy?
McCrea, Gwendolin. 2016. Castor canadensis and urban wetland governance- Fairfax County, VA case study. Urban Forestry and Urban Greening 19: 306-314.
Final thoughts? The stated point of Huntley Meadows was to promote biodiversity. And the planners were worried that the beavers were going to ruin that. Ahem.