Canadian beavers in Patagonia’s forests: environmental ethics and invasive species management

Andrea Galassi

According to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, beavers, the largest rodents in North America, are “one of the few species that significantly modify their environment.” By erecting of watertight dams of sticks woven with reeds, branches and saplings, which are caulked with mud, they diminish the stream erosion and form slow-moving ponds. As we can imagine, these ponds serve as habitat for a wide range of small aquatic life and also provide water and food for much larger animals. However, in some parts of the world, beavers had generated a decrease in the biomass and the volume of the forests, especially those classified, as “protected forests” because of they are associated with watercourses, an impact that is difficult to overcome in a natural way. Such is the case of Patagonian forests in Argentina and Chile.

beaver overpopulation — Tierra del Fuego

Going back in history, in 1946 10 pairs of beavers (Castor Canadensis) were brought from Manitoba to the Argentinian archipelago of Tierra del Fuego in an attempt to bring the fur industry to the area. But what Argentina´s military government ignored was the fact that beavers had no natural predators— like wolves, lynx, or coyotes— in the area in contrast to North America, which is home to bears and wolves. Thus the population swelled over the last 70 years, causing damage to thousands of old-growth trees –like Nothofagus or southern beeches forests- and peat bogs. In addition, the species has a serious impact on the ecosystem services of the turbines, which also have a specific role in basin regulation, in sustaining biodiversity and for their global contribution to carbon sequestration. Moreover, beaver dams –some of which I´ve actually witnessed myself when a recent visit to “Bahia Lapataia”, Tierra del Fuego- are so dominate that researchers can identify them in satellites images.

It was not until the 1990s that the governments of Argentina and Chile began to realize the magnitude of their beaver problem. Even though they tried to encourage recreational and commercial beaver hunting, trained hundreds of locals to trap encouraged restaurants to serve beaver-meat recipes and put a bounty on each beaver they could not reverse the damage because of low fur prices and hunting difficulties. Moreover, according to Alejandro Valenzuela -conservation coordinator for Argentina’s Southern Patagonia National Parks- the program caused more ecological damage than it saved: since beavers are territorial, the movement of a beaver colony from a pond, will allow new beavers will move in, but they won’t use the old dam. Instead, they will build a new dam, felling more trees and creating a larger pond in the process.

After several discussions, in 2008 Argentinian government –in cooperation with the Republic of Chile – began a 10-year mission to exterminate 100,000 beavers with traps and training hunters to eventually eradicate the species. Through the Secretary of Environment and Sustainable Development, the National Government established a Pilot Program in order to provide governance of invasive alien species. In 2019, preliminary results from a pilot project in Esmeralda-Lasifashaj region, which ran from October 2016 to January 2017 and from March to May 2017, were released. The studies show that “eradication was not achieved using the methods and efforts in the first part of the pilot study” [highlighting] “the need for more effort or the application of different techniques or trapping strategies. For example, daily checking of traps may cause the animals to be cautious so, the next step in the Programme will involve exploring alternative trapping methods to reduce disturbance”.

Consequently, at this moment all the efforts are centralized in the eradication and the fact that Argentina and Chile will also have to figure out how to restore the forests that have already been damaged by the beavers. This will be a next step. However, as an Animal Law student there are ethical questions for and against specific actions about the eradication of beavers as non-native specie from Patagonia that necessarily arise here. For instance, are beavers as individual sentient animals opposite to the value (at the species level) of plants and trees in Patagonia, and its ecosystems as well? Furthermore, is killing for conservation justified in order to eradicate invasive species?

Conservation Biology is “a multidisciplinary science that has developed to address the loss of biological diversity.” Its two central goals are “to evaluate human impacts on biological diversity and to develop practical approaches to prevent the extinction of species”. In other words, there is an inherent idea that CB is conformed by both value judgments and ethical decisions. Moreover, in the last few years Ethics and Animal Welfare have been presented an optional and newly born approach: the Compassionate Conservation Approach which aims to safeguard Earth’s biological diversity while retaining a commitment to treating individuals “with respect and concern for their well-being.” Even though there are currently two sides – those who consider killing to be unacceptable in any situation; and those who think it might be acceptable when there’s no other solution- by embracing animal ethics, the Compassionate Conservation Approach offers an interesting viewpoint by bringing the practices and sciences of animal welfare and conservation biology closer together and by envisioning the application of specific ethical arguments to improve the status quo of beavers versus ecosystem in Patagonia. The application of environmental ethics to political decisions can be crucial for understanding and settling our responsibility towards the multiple problems that currently affect our planet.

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