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Northwest Territories

Beavers expanding north bring damming consequences for Inuit and wildlife

Eddie Kumarluk recalls a time when thousands of char swam in Lake Pamiullujusiup near Umiujaq, Que.

In the 1970s, there was a local who set up his nets in the winter, recalled Kumarluk, manager of the community’s hunting, fishing and trapping association in Quebec’s northern Nunavik region.

“He used to catch nothing but char,” said Kumarluk. “It’s one of our staple foods that we like so much and they’ve been declining in recent years. We’ve barely caught anything.”

What he described as a once rich area for fishermen no longer exists. Newly arrived beavers are to blame.

The bucktooth rodents have spread north over the past few decades—now they can be found above the tree line in parts of Nunavik.

Experts say they travel out of survival instincts, but the move comes at a price for the wildlife and traditional Inuit way of life.

Studying beavers in the north

Locals noticed the encroaching animals as early as the 1970s and 1980s, says Kumarluk.

About 10 to 15 years ago they started finding beaver dams built along the lakes. From there, they realized the extent of the damage being caused by the semiaquatic animals – and the need to study their impact on the northern environment.

A group of people smile at the camera
Mikhaela Neelin (bottom left) and Eddie Kumarluk (top left) are some of the representatives who attended last month’s Arctic Beaver Observation Network conference in Yellowknife. (Submitted by Mikhaela Neelin)

According to Kumarluk, it is the “architecture” of the dam – built to house young beavers – that poses a particular problem for arctic char.

“They’re not as strong as salmon. Salmon can jump a beaver dam… but arctic [char] are weaker,” Kumarluk said, adding that the presence of the beavers has become a problem 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 was to secure funding to dismantle the dams to restore proper water flow to the lakes.

A beaver dam lies on the edge of a river.
Even a beaver dam along a lake can drastically affect wildlife, says Mikhaela Neelin. (Submitted by Mikhaela Neelin)

Climate change factor in beaver migration

Some communities, like Umiujaq, are particularly at risk of being affected by the beaver’s spread because of its geographical location, says Mikhaela Neelin, director of the Nunavik Hunting Fishing Trapping Association.

Umiujaq is one of the communities north of the tree line – the edge of habitat where trees can grow.

“In the tundra and many regions, that’s where they’re seeing beavers appearing for the first time,” Neelin said, adding that the aftermath has been mixed.

“It’s not black and white…beavers are often pretty useful. 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 one big dam could really affect a fishery,” Neelin said.

Beavers can also affect the water quality, says Neelin. As water systems and rivers are dammed, there are concerns as to whether water from the lake or river could still be consumed without treatment.

Small bushes and plants grow along a river.
Shrubs have increased in Nunavik, making for a good environment for beavers. (Submitted by Mikhaela Neelin)

Part of the problem has to do with what Neelin calls Nunavik’s “bush encroachment” — more willows and small branches growing in the region due to warming of the environment.

“Grass, for example, they would be at ankle height. Some of them are now at human height and with that amount of foliage material, beavers can survive in areas that were previously impossible for them,” Neelin said.

“Climate change is really increasing altitude. … So that’s having a huge impact on beavers moving north.”

find solutions

According to Kumarluk, beavers are also expanding north due to human activities such as hunting as a result of survival instincts.

Two people wade through a river that comes just above their knees.
Makivik Corporation conducted some field work on beaver spread in the summer of 2022. (Mathilde Lapointe St-Pierre)

“We hardly work on the Inuit [beavers]”, says Kumarluk. “We don’t bother them.”

Kumarluk and Neelin represented Nunavik at a conference on the Arctic beaver expansion in Yellowknife last month.

Kumarluk says they recently bought a drone to survey the area and are trying to get a Cree elder to come to Umiujaq to teach the community how to control their growing beaver population.

“We really want to teach the youngsters, the young people, even the older ones, how to catch beavers so maybe we can control at least part of it,” Kumarluk said.

“Hopefully we’ll get more money.”

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