"Once nonexistent in northwest Alaska, beavers are both benefiting from and changing a warming tundra."
"Cyrus Harris hopped on a snowmobile one day in early January and zoomed up a peninsula near Kotzebue, Alaska, to break trail for his sled dogs. “The first beaver dam I’m running into is about three miles from town,” he said. “Nearby that one is another one, about five miles out is another one, and that’s just one little area.” Harris (Inupiaq) was born in 1957 and spent his childhood across Kotzebue Sound in Sisualik. “Beavers were really just unheard of,” he said. “It’s crazy the amount of beaver coming in, they’re just raiding the whole area.”
Beavers — once seldom seen in northwest Alaska — started appearing more frequently in the ’80s and ’90s. Pastor Lance Kramer (Inupiaq) traps beavers today, mostly for making fur hats. He recently asked an elder about the area’s first sightings. “They saw this thing on the tundra, and it looked like a wolverine, but it was a really long beaver,” Kramer said. “(It) had walked so far on the tundra to get up this way that it wore out the bottom of its tail.”
Now the animals — and their ponds, dams and lodges — are everywhere. Using satellite images of the Kotzebue area, scientists found that the number of beaver dams surged from two in 2002 to 98 in 2019, a 5,000% jump. And it’s not just Kotzebue: Beaver ponds doubled regionally since 2000, with 12,000 in northwestern Alaska now. Beavers, dubbed “ecosystem engineers” because of how they flood their surroundings, are transforming the tundra."