LOS GATOS >> Californians are crossing their fingers for more rain after three punishing years of drought have left streams, rivers and wetland parched.
One animal has the potential to restore these dry landscapes.
With their industrial buck teeth and flat tails, beavers and their dams offer a defense against drought, a solution to reversing the effects of climate change. The rodents are known as ecosystem engineers. And they once populated most of California (and the Bay Area) until fur traders nearly wiped them out in the 19th century,
“This state has lost more of its wetlands than all other states, and beavers can rebuild those wetlands,” said Rick Lanman of the Institute for Historical Ecology in Los Altos. “Knowing that it is native should help guide restoration efforts.”
Beaver dams bestow benefits to the environment that we humans can’t easily copy. They turn land into a sponge for water. Their gnawing and nesting promotes richer soil and slows down water, improving imperiled fish habitat. Their dams raise water tables, nourishing shrubbery alongside streams that stabilize eroding banks and add habitat for birds and deer. They also help the endangered California Red-legged frog.
After beavers move to a new area, at night, they drag a tree across a shallow stream to start a dam. They carry rocks and mud with their paws and branches with their big incisors. Water in these beaver ponds would otherwise flow away. So it’s no surprise that thirsty western states are turning to the furry critters with open arms.
“There’s a growing interest in using beaver as a habitat restoration tool,” said Michael M. Pollock, an ecosystems analyst with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. “They create good wetland habitat much more cheaply than other restoration methods.”
Government agencies are hosting a workshop series in a few western states and writing a guide on how to use beavers for restoration. California Fish and Wildlife is starting to embrace the beaver, a shift beaver advocates applaud.
“Our effort now is to show its many sides, sides that have always existed,” said Kevin Shaffer, a fisheries manager for state Fish and Wildlife. “We are investigating how beaver promote habitat and water conservation through their habitat manipulation. We are also creating public and scientific information about the beaver, its ecological role and current regulations and laws affecting its management and conservation.”
Other arid states in the West have comprehensive policies for managing beavers. California allows beaver to be hunted and killed if they cause trouble. Utah has a beaver management plan, and New Mexico recently mandated that its Fish and Wildlife come up with a plan too. Oregon, Washington and Idaho have relocation programs.