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Why California’s beavers can help the state fight climate change

September 7, 2022

They’re stocky, furry and usually a bit damp, and they’ve been underappreciated for decades. But not anymore. Meet one of California’s best climate-change fighting tools: the beaver.

Lauded as some of nature’s most effective engineers, a motivated group of beavers can divert rivers and streams with their dams of sticks and mud and, in doing so, keep the land they occupy, helping fight the ongoing moist drought. That moisture can also play a key role in slowing the state’s virulent wildfire season — flames can’t burn wet sticks. Smokey Bear? Think Smokey Beaver instead.

This year, the state has begun harnessing the beaver’s potential, pumping over a million dollars into restoring these industrious rodents in each of the next two years.

“This new beaver restoration program is not just figuratively but literally a watershed moment for Californians to recognize beaver as a climate change and nature-based solution partner,” said Brock Dolman, co-director of the Water Institute at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Sonoma.

Dolman and Water Institute Co-Director Kate Lundquist have been a part of what they call the “beaver believer” community for decades, advocating for beaver restoration in the state. The money — which amounts to $1.67 million in the 2022-23 fiscal year and $1.44 million in the 2023-24 fiscal year — will fund jobs for five new environmental scientists who will work with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to review outdated beaver policies and prioritize beaver restoration projects.

So how exactly does this group of rodents help solve some of California’s drought and wildfire problems? It all starts at home.

beavers live in ladies they construct from tree branches and mud surrounded by water, which create a hard barrier that’s difficult for predators to penetrate. They have underwater entrances to these lodges, which are usually home to two monogamous adult beavers and their offspring. These barriers aren’t just homes. The blockade spreads water from small streams into vast wetland areas.

These wetland areas allow water to slowly seep into the soil so when droughts happen, enough water is stored in the ground to keep areas green, explained Emily Fairfax, assistant professor of environmental science and resource management at California State University Channel Islands. They help support all kinds of wildlife from salmon and trout to lush plant life.

The rodents are also constantly chewing vegetation to create their lodges, keeping greenery “a little bit less old, less stagnant, and shorter,” Fairfax said. Taken together, the beavers are essentially building firebreaks before a fire ignites: “It’s wetland and wet plants and not a bunch of big old trees. And that’s hard to burn,” she said.

Evidence of recent beaver activity is apparent in a chewed tree stump just north of Frenchman Lake near Chilcoot (Plumas County) in land scarred by the Dixie Fire.

Evidence of recent beaver activity is apparent in a chewed tree stump just north of Frenchman Lake near Chilcoot (Plumas County) in land scarred by the Dixie Fire.

Tracy Barbutes/Special to The Chronicle

Beavers are native to many parts of Northern California, including the Bay Area, but not everyone recognizes their ecological value. Once prized for their meat and furs, they were nearly hunted to extinction by European colonizers from the late 1700s to the mid 1800s, according to Lundquist and Dolman’s research. By the early 1900s, there were just 1,000 estimated beavers left in California, they said

A reprieve for the beavers came in 1911, when the California Division of Fish and Game, now the Department of Fish and Wildlife, passed laws protecting remaining beavers from being hunted. But, it was only temporary, and the law was revised to allow landowners to kill “nuisance” beavers. Their dams, while impressive, often cause damage to farmland and can pose a flood risk.

Predation is still a threat to California beavers today. Before landowners can kill beavers, they must apply for a permit through the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The department issued 148 of these permits in 2021. Just because a permit was issued doesn’t mean it was used to kill a beaver, though. Alternatives can be limited. Relocating beavers is illegal in California, according to Chad Dibble, deputy director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In 2007, the city of Martinez nearly exterminated its beavers after its dams were reported to create a flooding hazard. Because the beavers could not legally be moved, killing them appeared to be the only option. Public outcry was so great that the beavers were ultimately allowed to stay.

“There’s that phrase that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and our sense is that a living beaver’s life is a terrible thing to waste,” Dolman said.

It’s hard to say how many beavers inhabit California today, according to Dolman. He explained there currently is no monitoring of beaver populations at the state level. But, they could be doing better.

“We are absolutely hemorrhaging beavers out of the Sacramento River Delta and out of the Sierra Nevada and it should not be that high,” Fairfax said. “Especially if we are also having these really intense fires and droughts in those regions.”

Environmental scientist Emily Fairfax and husband Andrew Peterson fly drones to explore beaver habitat at Frenchman Lake near Chilcoot (Plumas County).

Environmental scientist Emily Fairfax and husband Andrew Peterson fly drones to explore beaver habitat at Frenchman Lake near Chilcoot (Plumas County).

Tracy Barbutes/Special to The Chronicle

Many in the “beaver believer” community hope the state’s efforts at restoration will create a new age for the animals in the Bay Area and California. The Department of Fish and Wildlife has already spent millions implementing beaver restoration programs, including creating beaver dam analogs that mimic the form and benefits of natural beaver dams, according to Dibble.

But he explained the department is now going to take a “more holistic and proactive approach towards supporting beavers,” including prioritizing beaver restoration projects, fostering better partnerships with local communities, indigenous tribes and landowners and updating and adopting policies for better beaver management throughout the state.

Lundquist added the new program could identify some places for potential pilot relocation projects, taking beavers from where they aren’t wanted and placing them where they’re needed.

Dolman is optimistic the department’s efforts will have a positive impact on beaver populations in California.

“The beaver glass is more than half full with benefits and half empty with problems, and we have affordable legal code and strategies to address all of those problems,” he said.

Emma Talley is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: metrodesk@sfchronicle.com

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