Beavers moving north lead to negative consequences for Inuit and wildlife
Eddie Kumarluk remembers a time when thousands of Arctic char were swimming in Pamiullujusiup Lake near Umiujaq, Quebec.
In the 1970s, there was a local who set up his nets in the winter, recalls Kumarluk, manager of the community’s hunting, fishing and trapping association in Quebec’s northern Nunavik region.
“He used to only catch arctic char,” Kumarluk said. « It’s one of our main foods that we love so much, and they’ve been on the decline in recent years. We’ve barely caught any. »
What he described as a once bountiful area for anglers is no more. The newly arrived beavers are to blame.
Horsetooth rodents have expanded north in recent decades – now found in parts of Nunavik beyond the treeline.
Experts say they travel out of survival instinct, but the move takes a toll on wildlife and traditional Inuit lifestyles.
Studying Beavers in the North
Locals started noticing the invasive animals as early as the 1970s and 1980s, Kumarluk says.
10 to 15 years ago, we started to find beaver dams built along the lakes. From there, they realized the extent of the damage caused by semi-aquatic animals — and the need to study their impact on the northern environment.
Kumarluk says it’s the « architecture » of the dam – built as a shelter for young beavers – that poses a problem for arctic char in particular.
« They’re not as strong as the salmon. The salmon can jump over a beaver dam…but the arctic [char] are weaker,” Kumarluk said, adding that the presence of beavers has become a concern for the community.
« We don’t know how many rivers they have blocked or dammed and we have so much work ahead of us, » Kumarluk said. « We do what we can. »
Part of the effort has been to secure funds to dismantle dams to restore proper water flow to the lakes.
Climate change plays a role in moving beavers
Some communities, like Umiujaq, are particularly at risk of being affected by beaver expansion due to geography, says Mikhaela Neelin, director of the Nunavik Hunting Fishing Trapping Association.
Umiujaq is one of the communities located just north of the treeline — the limit of habitat where trees can grow.
« In the tundra and in many areas, they see beavers appearing there for the first time, » Neelin said, adding that the consequences are mixed.
« It’s not black and white…beavers are often very beneficial. They do a lot, » Neelin said.
However, she notes that the negative consequences are more severe in the North.
« They migrate into the lake and even a big dam could really affect a fishing area, » Neelin said.
Beavers could also affect water quality, Neelin says. As water systems and rivers are dammed, there are questions about whether lake or river water could still be consumed without treatment.
Part of the problem has to do with what Neelin calls Nunavik “shrubbing” – with more willows and twigs growing in the area due to a warming environment.
« Willow trees for example, they would be ankle high. Some of them are now human height and with that amount of deciduous material, beavers are able to survive in areas they couldn’t. before, » Neelin said.
« Climate change is really increasing the height. … So it’s a huge impact on beavers moving north. »
Kumarluk says beavers are also expanding north out of survival instinct due to human activities such as hunting.
“The Inuit, we hardly work [beavers] », says Kumarluk. « We do not disturb them. »
Kumarluk and Neelin represented Nunavik at an Arctic beaver expansion conference in Yellowknife last month.
Kumarluk says they recently purchased a drone to survey the area and are trying to bring a Cree elder to Umiujaq to teach the community how to control its growing beaver population.
« We really want to teach young people, young people, even elders, how to trap beavers so that maybe we can control at least some of them, » Kumarluk said.
« Hopefully we can get more funding. »