Hot spots of boreal landscape

The beaver (Castor spp.) is a known ecosystem engineer that modifies its environment quite drastically. It builds a dam and raises floodwaters into surrounding forests, killing trees, and releasing organic material into riverine systems and lakes. The rising water level changes both the abiotic and biotic conditions of a wetland. Many organisms, from water lice to water birds, benefit from these changes. Beavers facilitate these species by offering both nesting and sheltering areas in the form of low bushes and trees by the water’s edge, increased aquatic plant communities for nutrition, and ice-free water areas for extended periods.

Beaver-created wetlands are cyclic ecosystems. Beavers usually inhabit a site for one to three years and then move to the nearby site, where the whole process starts again. After the beaver has left the site, the abandoned site reverts quite slowly back to the original. So the beaver’s actions endure much longer than they occupy the site, and commonly they return to former sites within 10 years.

 

Beaver-created wetlands can be seen as a biodiversity hot spots. This pic is from eastern Finland. © Mia Vehkaoja

Beaver-created wetlands can be seen as a biodiversity hot spots. This pic is from eastern Finland. © Mia Vehkaoja

The beavers’ actions can be seen as quite sharp shifts in an ecosystem, but the very nature of the changes that the beavers create tends to be rather stable. As the beavers transform the ecosystem they also enable resilience in landscapes. Beaver-created wetlands increase the heterogeneity of the landscape, and can be seen as biochemical and biodiversity hot spots. They maintain several declining species, especially in the northern Boreal Hemisphere, where eutrophic wetlands are relatively rare.
The EU has an ongoing project called the Return of Rural Wetlands. The size of the EU funding in this project in Finland is a little over a million Euros. The other million Euros come from the Finnish Government and the rest from the Finnish Wildlife Agency. The aim of the project is to create a new frame and a good start for the future nationwide program for wildlife habitat conservation, restoration and re-creation. So people are creating new wetlands using tractors and diggers, and by bringing soil and water from elsewhere.

Beavers would do the same work for free. Instead of misspending lots of money on labor, expensive machines and moving earth, we could use some part of the funding to re-introduce the European beaver (Castor fiber) to a wider area. In this way we would save money, get the same results, if not even better ones, and help our original, once extinct species to recover. In addition, Finland would achieve the obligations of EU Inland Water Directive.

The new re-introduction of the European beaver project would involve the same interest groups as the Return of Rural Wetlands project. Some of the re-introductions could be conducted on state-owned lands and some on privately owned land. There are several local landowners involved in the Return of Rural Wetlands project, so there is a good possibility that they would be interested in the same kind of project as well. Regional hunting clubs would want to be involved, as beaver-created wetlands offer improved hunting and fishing opportunities, because their habitat engineering increases the number of game and fish species. It might be easy to get regional authorities and policymakers to engage in the project, because of the EU obligations that abide them. Furthermore, the policymakers would conserve the biodiversity of Finland, and gain the respect of The Finnish Association for Nature Conservation and the public. When all these interest groups are involved in and the role of power is divided to various levels, a revolution in wetland creation is possible. When such a project succeeds in Finland, it should be possible to implement it also in other EU countries.

 

The Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) favors beaver-created wetlands, especially during breeding season. © Mia Vehkaoja

The Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) favors beaver-created wetlands, especially during breeding season. © Mia Vehkaoja

The beaver’s actions extend wider than just creating suitable wetlands for several species. Beaver-created wetlands produce high amounts of dead wood. Dead wood is a decreasing natural source and the species dependent on dead wood are under threat. There are numerous bryophyte, lichen and beetle species that rely on moist dead wood. The resilience of beaver-created wetlands is more general than specified, as its transformability reaches from wetlands into the forest.

Beavers provide also other ecosystem services to humans. They mitigate flood peaks by retaining rainwater and drought conditions by slowly releasing water. Beaver-created wetlands act as buffer zones by filtering impurities, e.g. heavy metals, thus increasing water quality. They facilitate and conserve endangered and declined species, and create interesting hiking and relaxation possibilities for humans. All in all, beaver-created wetlands are one of the key ecosystems in boreal areas to be conserved.

Advertisements

Preserving by killing?

Conflicts between humans and space demanding big game make sustainable management difficult. This is because sustainability must be reached at three level to be successful: ecological, economic and social. Problems are caused especially by big predators, which test local people tolerance. One possibility to reach sustainability of all three aspects is to use ecosystem services animals’ offer. This way a value is given for the animal. However, using animals for commercial purposes might be controversial.

Wolf puppies in Polar Park in Norway are familiarized with humans already in early stage. They also get used to visitors and their habits, for example photographing. Thus, later one they won’t stress about park visitors. © Sari Holopainen

Wolf puppies in Polar Park in Norway are familiarized with humans already in the early stage. They also get used to visitors and their habits, for example photographing. Thus, later one they won’t stress about park visitors. © Sari Holopainen

Commercial use of animals, watching and especially hunting is controversial issue especially for nature conservationists. Many people think this kind of use is cruel (see e.g. Kevin Richardson). Common anger has risen in social media after pictures (by young western women) about sport hunting in Africa, both in North America (story in Fox News), and Europe (The Independent). Question raised is, how can one protect animals by hunting them.

During the human history, many big animals have been hunted to extinction. The sad fact is, that with current rate of killing, outside the reserves many large mammals of Africa and South-East Asia will be extinct during the next few decades. Currently some species are numerous in ranches, where they offer ecosystem services, like trophy hunting. This is the case for many African species like white rhinos, lions and grazing antelopes.

Cheetah population has dropped to emergency low after losing its habitats and poaching by livestock owning farmers. Could trophy hunting be the solution? Cheetah in Base Zoo.  © Sari Holopainen

Cheetah population has dropped to emergency low after habitat loss and poaching by livestock owning farmers. Could trophy hunting be the solution? Cheetah in Basel Zoo. © Sari Holopainen

Many people see commercial farms as the only way to preserve big game of Africa, because preserving is expensive and requires constant fight against poaching. Responsible trophy hunting might be a tool for successful conservation (Save the Rhino). Outside the ranches animals could get killed by poachers or enraged local people. For instance, inside the ranches less than a hundred white rhinos are hunted every year, whereas outside the farms the number is around thousand. To put the numbers in frames, there are c. 5000 ranched white rhinos, and the rest 15 000 are in national parks. Due to poaching, rhinos have poorer surveillance in national parks, even though they are guarded (Reuters). So far commercial hunting in ranches has been sustainable, and the number of rhinos is increasing.

If an animal has a value, it is beneficial to use it in sustainable way. This is what has worked in Africa, and is now suggested by Finnish game managers. Currently in Finland wolves are causing conflicts. Even though wolves where totally protected during several years, their number decreased due to poaching. In a debate many stakeholders brought up an idea, that wolves should gain their value. Another Finnish carnivore, brown bear, is already valuable game and its population size is sustainable. It is suggested, that if people are legally allowed to hunt, they would tolerate wolves better. Small scale hunting could replace uncontrollable poaching, and wolf population could increase to sustainable size again.

Ecosystem services of predators exploited by Wildlife Safaris Finland. Bears, wolves, wolverines and eagles are attracted by carcasses to certain places where people can photograph them. © Sari Holopainen

Ecosystem services of predators exploited by Wildlife Safaris Finland. Bears, wolves, wolverines and eagles are attracted by carcasses to certain places where people can photograph them. © Sari Holopainen

In an imaginary world all the species, even predators, could roam free and humans would let them be. But in real world one must work in those frames that are given. Large animals and humans are easily in conflict. To prevent total eradication local people must get some profit from the animal. If incomes are depended on animals’ sustainable use, sustainable management should be in ones best interest.

More in Finnish:

WWF: Afrikan metsästysmatkat voivat olla myös hyödyksi. Helsingin Sanomat 2.9.2014.