California aims to tap beavers, once viewed as a nuisance, to help with water issues and wildfires

Jul 24, 2023, 9:08 PM

A beaver swims in Napa Creek, Wednesday, July 19, 2023, in Napa, Calif. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vás...

A beaver swims in Napa Creek, Wednesday, July 19, 2023, in Napa, Calif. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

(AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

For years, beavers have been treated as an annoyance for chewing down trees and shrubs and blocking up streams, leading to flooding in neighborhoods and farms. But the animal is increasingly being seen as nature’s helper in the midst of climate change.

California recently changed its tune and is embracing the animals that can create lush habitats that lure species back into now-urban areas, enhance groundwater supplies and buffer against the threat of wildfires.

A new policy that went into effect last month encourages landowners and agencies dealing with beaver damage to seek solutions such as putting flow devices in streams or protective wrap on trees before seeking permission from the state to kill the animals. The state is also running pilot projects to relocate beavers to places where they can be more beneficial.

The aim is to preserve more beavers, along with their nature-friendly behaviors.

“There’s been this major paradigm shift throughout the West where people have really transitioned from viewing beavers strictly as a nuisance species, and recognizing them for the ecological benefits that they have,” said Valerie Cook, beaver restoration program manager for California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. The program was funded by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration last year.

The push follows similar efforts in other Western states including Washington, which has a pilot beaver relocation program, Cook said. It marks a new chapter in Californians’ lengthy history with the animals, which experts say used to be everywhere, but after years of trapping, attempts at reintroduction, and then removal under depredation permits, are found in much smaller numbers than they once were — largely in the Central Valley and northern part of the state.

It is unknown how many beavers live in California, but hundreds of permits are sought by landowners each year that typically allowed them to kill the animals. According to the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, the beaver population in North America used to range between 100 million and 200 million but now totals between 10 million and 15 million.

Kate Lundquist, director of the WATER Institute at the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center, said she expects California’s changes will lead to fewer beavers killed in the state and a growth in wetland spaces. She said she believes the past three years of drought and devastating wildfires contributed to the state’s shift on beavers.

“There has been increased motivation to identify and fund the implementation of nature-based climate smart solutions,” she said. “Beaver restoration is just that.”

Beavers live in family units and quickly build dams on streams, creating ponds. The pools help slow the flow of water, replenishing groundwater supplies, and can also stall the spread of wildfires — a critical issue for a state plagued by fires in recent years, said Emily Fairfax, professor of environmental science and management at California State University, Channel Islands.

“You talk to anyone who has lived near beaver ponds. They’ll tell you: These things don’t burn,” said Fairfax, who has researched beavers and the ponds they build.

The animals are not a protected species but help create habitat that is critical for others such as the coho salmon, which is listed under the Endangered Species Act. Young salmon grow and thrive in beaver ponds before heading to the ocean, which gives them a better shot at survival, said Tom Wheeler, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center, which has long pushed for California to try to resolve problems with beavers without killing them.

Officials at the California Farm Bureau said they were studying the change and have not yet taken a position on it.

California will continue to issue depredation permits as needed, but the state wants people to try other solutions before resorting to killing the animals, officials said. Those could be wrapping trees with wire mesh or using flow devices on streams to control beaver pond levels to prevent flooding.

In some cases, it may involve relocating beavers to places that want them. Vicky Monroe, statewide conflict programs coordinator for California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, said her office has long received requests from groups that want beavers, but the state didn’t have a mechanism to legally move them until recently.

California has planned two pilot relocation projects, including one to bring beavers back to the Tule River. Kenneth McDarment, a councilmember for the Tule River Indian Tribe, said the tribe started seeking ways to reintroduce beavers nearly a decade ago due to drought and hopes to see them relocated later this year.

“We’re going to give these beavers a chance to do what they do naturally in a place where they’re wanted,” he said.

The state is also hoping to educate people about the benefits of beavers.

Rusty Cohn, a 69-year-old retired auto parts businessman, said he knew little about the animals before he spotted chewed trees on a walk through the Northern California city of Napa in a region better known for winemaking than the critters. He later observed beavers building a dam on a trickling stream, converting the area into a lush pond for heron, mink and other species, and became a fan.

“It was like a little magical place with an incredible amount of wildlife,” Cohn said. That was eight years ago, he said, adding that beaver sightings in that spot are becoming rarer amid increased development, but he can still find them on streams throughout Napa.

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