93% of Californians are being affected by drought, and in just one year, 9,000 wildfires burned 1.2 million acres of our state. Why is this happening year after year? Why have summer and fall become seasons of smoky skies, emergency evacuations, and peril for all of our families? Certainly, climate change is at work, but why are we so especially vulnerable to these traumatic runaway fires?
The cause may seem so small, so easy to overlook, it may even be hard to believe at first: What’s happened to California is that it’s gone dry, because we’ve lost our beavers.
What Beavers Used to Do Here
Talk to an elder in the California countryside and they will likely be able to point out a dry creek to you where they fished year-round or nearly-year-round as a child. The creek will have had trout, or even salmon in it.
Within living memory, California was wetter and less prone to burning. But, we need to go a bit further back than that to imagine this land before subsequent waves of fur trappers, miners and government policies almost entirely removed the great managers who were responsible for shaping and maintaining the majority of this region’s waterways.
Before they were hunted to the brink of extinction and labeled as non-native pests, beavers used to:
- Create wetlands, developing natural firebreaks
- Create deep reserves of water
- Filter out water impurities
- Slow stream runoff to keep streams flowing throughout the year, keeping 9x as much water in waterways
- Provide water and habitat for all nearby neighbors, including humans
- Contribute great diversity to the environment
- Fulfill their own purpose as creatures
Beavers made this region abundantly habitable for people, birds, salmon, trout, turtles, frogs, river otters, muskrats, minks, raccoons, deer, elk, antelopes, mollusks, insects and a host of other species. In fact, it’s hard to name a creature that isn’t benefited by the presence of plenty of water.
Now, with California facing unprecedented drought and wildfire, many people are just starting to wonder:
How Did We Almost Forget about Beavers in California?
As the above timeline infographic demonstrates, Californian scientists made a mistake when they set out to study beaver in the early 20th century. When they saw so few beavers left in the region, they forgot about the fur rush, and decided most of this region simply wasn’t suitable for beavers and this this was the cause of their scarcity.
Today, some scientists, departments, and citizens are making a second mistake, with catastrophic potential results for all of us. While the Department of Fish and Wildlife is no longer designating beavers as non-native to California, they still classify them as a pest to man instead of as a miraculous life-saver. Thankfully, 21st century scientists and researchers have put in the work to prove that beavers are not merely indigenous to California, but that they are the missing keystone species with the greatest potential to combat both drought and its outcome: runaway fire.
A Dry Present, A Thirsty Future
The context for any discussion of beavers in California is drought and groundwater depletion. Nearly half of our state is in an alarming condition called “exceptional drought“. Wetlands are the fastest disappearing ecosystem in North America, and according to the California Department of Water Resources, 21 of our state’s groundwater basins are subject to critical overdraft. The agency offers this definition:
“A basin is subject to critical overdraft when continuation of present water management practices would probably result in significant adverse overdraft-related environmental, social, or economic impacts.”
In other words, if we continue with our present water management approach, we are looking at an uninhabitable future.
As the Lakota People have taught the nation to say in recent years, “Mni Wiconi: Water is Life”.
The good news is that, with a concerted effort, we can choose a very different future. We can stop misunderstanding our abnormal environmental conditions as “just the way things are”. The California stream nearest you doesn’t have to run dry each year, and we can learn that, as lovely as a clear, fast moving creek may be to look at, it isn’t as beautifully important as a deep pool of reserved water. Streams managed by beavers have 9x the water of un-managed ones! It is the beaver who knows how to slow the runoff, resuscitate the wetland, and provide the basic access to water that is a human right, as well as a right for all living things.
Meanwhile, as our thirsty land catches fire summer after summer, we can easily picture a future in which the flames run into a beaver wetland and extinguish in a puff of smoke, with far fewer of us getting hurt or, tragically, killed. In fact, some firefighters already know the value of beaver ponds as reservoirs, and have been photographed using helicopters to access that water when fire strikes.
And, as was recently stated on the blog of the National Wildlife Federation, “Recent wildfires in the West proved that wet habitat is invaluable as a refuge, and possibly as a firebreak, too: the only remaining green areas amidst miles of scorched rangeland were active beaver ponds that kept the flames at bay.”
All of us want to be safe, to have enough water. And if the key to this lies in learning to see California differently, to see it not in its present degraded state but in a wetter, more sustainable future vision, where do we begin?
Facing Fear of Beavers
Psychologists agree that most prejudices are founded in fear and/or ignorance. When you begin to talk to neighbors and officials about the need to welcome beavers back to California’s waterways, you will likely encounter objections rooted in fear, which is often itself rooted in a simple lack of information. Here is a set of concerns and questions you may find yourself facing, along with fact-based answers that you can respectfully offer:
Fear 1: Beavers are not native to California.
Fact 1: That belief came from bad science in the 20th century that overlooked the fur rush which had decimated beaver populations. As published by the Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2013, beavers are absolutely native to this state. These up-to-date findings are based on the work of a group of scientists and researchers who documented proofs of widespread former beaver habitat as evidenced in:
- Indigenous vocabulary for “beaver” in dozens of California tribal languages.
- English language place names throughout the state featuring the animal’s name (e.g. “Beaver Creek”, “Beaver Meadow”, etc.)
- Physical evidence in the form of fossils, chew marks and museum specimens
- Historical written testimony documenting the abundance of the species
If you appreciate science, or need to utilize it to prove that the beaver has inhabited California since time immemorial, please reference the complete documentation as compiled by the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center in conjunction with the Department of Fish & Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy.
Fear 2: Won’t beavers flood my property or town?
Fact 2: Beavers don’t have a monopoly on engineering. Humans can be very clever engineers, too, and have invented flow devices like the Beaver Deceiver which prevent flooding while enabling beavers to remain in the ecosystem. In one historic case, neighbors in the city of Martinez, CA. were able to overcome local fears and invest in technology that ensured both a safe town and the continuance of beavers in their downtown creek. A decade later, no flooding has ever occurred and the creek is booming with returning wildlife.
In times of economic stress, a good reminder to share with city and state officials is that beavers, of course, work for free, every day.
Fear 3: Beavers spread Giardiasis to humans.
Fact 3: While it’s technically true that you could contract giardia from drinking out of a pond containing beaver stool, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife states there has never been a documented case of this. Most people know it is unsafe to drink untreated water, and the truth is that you are more likely to contract parasites from your family’s cat or dog than from any beaver you might encounter.
Fear 4: Beavers are bad for business.
Fact 4: Ranchers and farmers trap, shoot and kill beavers for fear of flooding (fear #2), but in our drought-impacted state, any creature that creates natural reservoirs of water should be protected at all costs. Agriculture and cattle need more water – not less of it!
One historic case which proves the benefits of beavers to business can be seen in the narrative of Susie Creek. A rancher in Elko, Nevada was willing to fence off cattle access to his portion of the waterway, allowing trees to grow to support a small population of beavers there. What had been a near-dry gully quickly transformed into a lush, waterway, increasing riparian vegetation by over 100 acres, the aerial extent of open water by over 20 acres, and the length of wetted stream increased by almost three miles! When drought hit the area, the rancher was one of the only neighbors with any water for his cattle. The before-and-after photos tell it all:
Fear 5: Beavers dams will hurt salmon.
Fact 5: Actually, it’s man-made dams that have so devastated California’s salmon, reducing them to an estimated 1% of their original populations. Salmon are perfectly equipped to navigate beaver dams. For millions of years, beavers and fish have worked together here so successfully that California Native tribes still recall the presence of 50+ lb salmon in their streams and early American testimonies speak of rivers like the Feather being so glutted with the magnificent fish, you could walk on them. Beaver water management is so critical to the salmon life cycle that tribes like the Yurok and other groups have recreated beaver habitat and beaver dam analogues (BDAs) in hopes of saving salmon from extinction.
Fear 6: Beavers will cut down all of the trees where I live.
Fact 6: If a resident or community needs to protect certain trees, they can easily be guarded from become a meal for beavers by wrapping the trunks in wire or wire mesh. Another strategy is to paint tree trunks with sand, which beavers don’t like to chew.
So, given all of this evidence as to the necessity of overcoming old fears and welcoming beavers back to California, what’s really standing in our way?
California Fish & Wildlife Regulations
The California Department of Fish & Wildlife stands at startling odds with federal government agencies and commissions including the National Wildlife Federation and the United States Global Change Research Program which vigorously advocate the restoration of beavers in the Western United States to combat drought and fire. Instead of protecting existing beavers in California, the CDFW sells licenses to kill them. At a policy level, the tenets California must change are found in the California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s Mammal Hunting regulations:
Beaver may be taken only as follows:
- (a) Season and Area: November 1 through March 31 in the counties of Alameda, Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, Contra Costa, Del Norte, El Dorado, Fresno, Glenn, Humboldt, Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Kings, Lake, Lassen, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Modoc, Mono, Monterey, Nevada (except Sagehen Creek), Placer, Plumas, Sacramento, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Solano, Stanislaus, Sutter, Tehama, Trinity, Tulare, Tuolumne, Yolo and Yuba; and those portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties within 10 miles of the Arizona-California border. (This regulation supersedes Section 4001 of the Fish and Game Code.) Bag and Possession Limit: There is no bag or possession limit in these areas for the taking of beaver.
- (b) Beaver or any part thereof may not be taken in the balance of the state including the counties of Los Angeles, Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Orange, San Benito, San Diego, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Sonoma, and Ventura; and those portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties further than 10 miles from the California-Arizona border. (This regulation supersedes Section 4001 of the Fish and Game Code.)
In other words, for about half the year, in the majority of California’s counties, people can kill as many beavers as they want to. The above regulations go on to describe permissions on precise shooting and trapping methods (including padded-jaw leg-hold, steel-jawed leg-hold, and conibear traps, snares, dead-falls, cage traps and other devices designed to confine, hold, grasp, grip, clamp or crush animals’ bodies or body parts).
California’s budget for the DFW is $523 million. The DFW is funded partly by the sale of hunting, fishing and trapping licenses (the current cost for an annual hunting license is about $120), and partly by legislative allocations, which ultimately stem from your taxes as a citizen. The size of the DFW’s budget may surprise you, and it should alert Californians to the possibility that change won’t be easy to effect due to the incredibly large amount of money at stake.
Nevertheless, the above regulations must be changed in order to protect the very species with the greatest chance of protecting our families from drought and wildfire. Instead of profiting from the sale of licenses to shoot and trap beavers, the DFW could partner with communities as well as being the recipient of tax-based funding for spearheading the restoration of this keystone species in California. It’s up to citizens to effect this vital change.
Would You Like to Know More About Beavers Before You Help?
Beavers possess many qualities that make it easy for humans to admire and feel a natural kinship with them. When people pay attention to these animals, they quickly attribute to them characteristics like these:
Dexterous – Their hands are wonderfully agile, and they use them in combination with their mouths to build dams that can stretch for hundreds or even thousands of feet. Their lodges are wonders of construction, expertly built of sticks, mud and stones and serving as insulated living quarters with cold storage areas for keeping food fresh.
Hospitable – In cold winter areas, beavers allow their fellow creatures to lodge with them, including muskrats, mice, frogs, and fish in search of unfrozen waters. In certain parts of the country, the trumpeter swan uses the roof of the beaver lodge for a safe nesting site. Beavers freely share the water in their reservoirs with all creatures and plants who need to drink.
Industrious – Beavers work hard to provide food and shelter for themselves and their families. As isn’t the case with humans, the work that beavers do in altering their environment is almost always beneficial to fellow beings.
Role models of family life – Beavers are faithful partners, typically remaining with their mate for life unless separated by death. They are very careful parents, generally keeping their older children with them for several years even when new kits are born. Beavers teach their children how to live and survive. The family plays together, with babies enjoying sledding along on their elders’ tails. Beavers are greatly attached to their relatives and sincerely mourn the loss of loved ones who are killed.
Powerful – Beavers shape watercourses and create lakes, ponds and meadows with their powerful set of skills. Beavers can walk upright if they choose, and they are strong. They are herbivores who are generally peaceful, but will use their paddle-like tails to slap water as a warning to anyone who gets too close.
Instructive – If we use our own powers of observations, we can learn many things from beavers about how to live well in California, in better integration with our environment. Instead of building concrete dams that kill salmon, we can step back and let the beaver do this work in a traditional way. Instead of using chemical fire retardants to put out fires, we can increase wetlands and water reserves with the help of the beaver. Finally, beavers are purposeful in a way that we people sometimes feel disconnected from. Perhaps by respectfully observing the way a beaver lives his life true to his nature, we will learn things about how to live ours with equal confidence and contentment.
Modern Beaver Science
The 2018 report issued by the United States Global Change Research Program states that beavers are critical to reducing Climate Change water loss in the Western US in the following paragraph:
“Engineering by beavers encourages the slow release of water to downstream users and keeps water cool for migrating salmon and other aquatic species. Reintroduction of beavers throughout the western United States is helping to retain these functions in forested watersheds, increasing resilience to a warmer climate and reduced snowpack in mountains.”
It is up to the California Depart of Fish & Wildlife to keep up with the times by changing beavers’ status to reflect the findings of federal bodies like the USGCRP and the National Wildlife Federation. And given that CDFW’s own publication has already documented beavers’ historic range throughout most of the state of California, their present stance on beavers as “detrimental” is untenable.
The following map of California presents the evidence of beavers’ historic range as documented by Lanman, C.W., K. Lundquist, H. Perryman, J.E. Asarian, B. Dolman, R.B. Lanman, and M.M. Pollock in 2013 and published in California Fish and Game 99(4):193-221. This map presents beaver place names, museum specimens, zooarcheaological specimens and documented records.
Wonderful Beaver Videos
Perhaps the most beautiful film that has ever been created about beavers is an older National Geographic called Rocky Mountain Beaver Pond, which follows a year in the life around a beaver pond in Idaho, with lovely seasonal footage and soft music. If you can’t afford to purchase the DVD, see if your library can find you a copy of this relaxing and educational film.
Leave it to Beavers
Watch beavers transform a desert into a wetland, and meet some of this country’s finest “beaver believers” who are working to protect and reintroduce them in many places:
How One City Dealt with Beavers
Here, Heidi Perryman of Worth A Dam narrates the story of how she and other citizens of Martinez, California worked to save their local beavers from destruction, and relates the rich environmental benefits the area has enjoyed since.
The Return of California’s Golden Beaver
In this excellent short film, you’ll see exciting footage of beavers near you, as well as the other creatures that thrive when they are allowed to live. Researchers Rick Lanman and Heidi Perryman give an easy-to-understand overview of the history of beavers in California and the strategies available to people to coexist with them. *Note especially how both researchers speak of how beavers, despite drought years, have kept water in creeks that went dry before they came.
The Methow Beaver Project
Just one of many videos documenting Washington State’s vital effort to restore beavers in their national forests. This project can inspire California agencies to take action to ameliorate the impacts of climate change. If Washington can do it, so can we!
Beavers and Wildfire: a stop-motion story by Emily Fairfax
Learners of all ages will enjoy this quick, easy-to-understand demonstration of how beavers protect themselves and everybody else from wildfires. Created by a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder in the Department of Geological Sciences.
The Very Best Beaver Reading Materials
Eager – The surprising, secret lives of beavers and why they matter
by Ben Goldfarb
Published in 2018, this engrossing book delivers the resounding message that beavers are no less than our best hope for preserving life in our country. With a special chapter devoted entirely to California, Eager is a must-read for residents, diving deep into ecology, natural history and politics to inspire you to take action.
If you are a burgeoning “beaver believer”, we guarantee you won’t be able to put this book down, and reading it will equip you to speak to others about this keystone species in a knowledgeable, informed manner. If you can’t afford a copy or Eager, ask your local library to acquire one for the shelves.
Occidental Arts & Ecology Center
This website is the online home base of researchers Brock Dolman and Kate Lundquist who helped author the vital documents proving that beavers are native to California and vital to our ecosystem. This website links to all of the seminal research, as well as providing contact information to inquire about the ongoing Bring Back the Beaver Campaign which aims to reintegrate beavers into state policy and regulation.
a blog by Heidi Perryman
There is no more active publication on the web than this blog authored by beaver researcher and advocate Heidi Perryman who was so instrumental in protecting the beaver family who arrived more than ten years ago in Martinez, California. Ms. Perryman continuously publishes every tidbit she can find about beavers and related ecological topics. Wonderful photos of the Martinez beavers, and memorable, ongoing news.
by Matt Mais, Lost Coast Outpost
This incredible news article details how the Yurok and Hoopa tribes of far northwestern California joined together for the Bucktail Project to clean up an area that had become a dumping site. Almost immediately, salmon moved back into the waterway, and an onsite camera detected the swift arrival of beavers. This article will give you hope that nature is just waiting for humans to do the right thing to begin the healing process. Unforgettable.
Other Worthy Reads
Beavers, Wetlands and Wildlife – A New York-based non profit created by friends and professional associates of the “Beaver Woman” Dorothy Richards, who created a beaver sanctuary in the Adirondacks. BWW is dedicated to solving human-beaver conflicts and promoting living with beavers. Very nice educational articles here.
Beavers in the Sierra Nevada – Just one of the Wikipedia entries largely contributed to by beaver advocate Dr. Rick Lanman, a pivotal researcher in the groundbreaking 2012 studies on the place of beavers in California.
Beavers: A Potential Missing Link in California’s Water Future – An author in Oregon does a good job of summarizing California’s situation of drought and missing beavers.
The Bountiful Benefits Of Bringing Back The Beavers – This piece on NPR offers a useful list of states that are engaged in restoration of beavers.
The Methow Beaver Project – The website covering Washington state’s efforts to protect their land from climate change disaster with the help of beavers. California must get into this mindset, too!
They Will Build It – An exciting and detailed article by author Ben Goldfarb detailing the work the Tulalip Tribes of Washington state have done to change regulations and relocate beavers, with stunning effects on wetland growth and salmon recovery. California can and must follow Washington’s lead on this.
Everyone Can Help
In a single fire in 2017 in Sonoma County, CA., 4,685 families lost their homes, and 22 loved ones perished. In 2018, the Camp Fire in Butte County was even more devastating, burning 153,336 acres and taking so many loved ones’ lives, they have yet to be fully accounted for. Elders, parents and teachers are now having to explain to the present generation of children why the skies are filled with smoke outside the home and the fall classroom. Psychologist are weighing in on the lasting impacts of traumatic wildfire devastation on our mental health, and medical professionals are coping with smoke-related illnesses as more and more days are designated by state advisories as unhealthy for the basic act of breathing.
These are difficult times for all of us, but they are not hopeless days. This very moment carries with it the possibility – and the responsibility – of meaningful change, because we are thankfully not without options. With determination, based in love for our families and a deep respect for this land and all that dwell here, we can change water management strategies in California and lessen runaway fire risks. Everyone, from our youth to our great-grandparents, can contribute their share to welcoming back the beaver.