For years, beavers have been treated as nuisances due to their nibbling on trees and shrubs and blocking streams, causing areas and farms to flood. But the animal is increasingly seen as nature’s helper in the midst of climate change.
California has recently changed its mind and is accepting animals that can create lush habitats that lure species back to now-urban areas, improve groundwater supplies, and protect against the threat of wildfires.
The new policy, which went into effect last month, encourages landowners and agencies dealing with beaver damage to look for solutions, such as placing flow devices in streams or protective sheeting on trees, before asking the state for permission to kill the animals. The state is also running pilot projects to relocate beavers to places where they can be more useful.
The goal is to keep more beavers as well as their environmentally friendly behavior.
“There’s been a major paradigm shift in the West where people have really moved from seeing beavers solely as a nuisance to recognizing the environmental benefits they have,” said Valerie Cook, head of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s beaver restoration program. Last year, the program was funded by the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The push follows similar efforts in other western states, including Washington, D.C., which has a beaver relocation pilot program, Cook said. This marks a new chapter in the long history of Californians with animals that experts say used to be everywhere, but after years of capture, reintroduction attempts, and then removal under predation permits, are found in much smaller numbers than they once were, mostly in the Central Valley and upstate.
It is not known how many beavers live in California, but every year landowners request hundreds of permits that usually allow them to kill the animals. According to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the North American beaver population used to be between 100 and 200 million and now stands at between 10 and 15 million.
Kate Lundquist, director of the WATER Institute at the Western Center for the Arts and Ecology, said she expects changes in California to result in fewer beavers being killed in the state and more wetlands. She said she believes the past three years of drought and devastating wildfires have contributed to changing the status of beavers in the state.
“There is increased motivation to identify and fund the implementation of environmentally sound climate solutions,” she said. “Beaver recovery is easy.”
Beavers live in families and quickly build dams on streams, creating ponds. Basins help slow the flow of water by replenishing groundwater and can also contain the spread of wildfires — a critical issue for a state that has been plagued by wildfires in recent years, said Emily Fairfax, professor of environmental science and management at California State University, Channel Islands.
“You talk to everyone who lived near beaver ponds. They’ll tell you these things don’t burn,” said Fairfax, who has researched the beavers and the ponds they build.
These animals are not a protected species, but help create a 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 out to the ocean, giving them a better chance of survival, said Tom Wheeler, executive director of the Conservation Clearinghouse, who has long pushed for California to solve beaver problems without killing them.
California Farm Bureau officials said they are looking into the change and have not yet taken a position on it.
California will continue to issue predation permits as needed, officials said, but the state wants people to try other solutions before resorting to killing animals. This could be wrapping trees in wire mesh, or using flow devices on streams to control the level of beaver ponds to prevent flooding.
In some cases, this may involve relocating beavers to areas where they are needed. Vicki Monroe, state conflict prevention program coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said her office has long received inquiries from groups seeking beavers, but until recently the state had no mechanism to legally relocate them.
California has planned two pilot resettlement projects, including one to reintroduce beavers to the Tule River. Kenneth McDarment, a council member of the Tule River Indian Tribe, said the tribe began looking for ways to reintroduce beavers nearly a decade ago due to drought and hopes to see them relocate later this year.
“We’re going to give these beavers the opportunity to do what they naturally do, in a place where they’re needed,” he said.
The state also hopes to educate people about the benefits of beavers.
Rusty Cohn, a 69-year-old retired auto parts businessman, said he didn’t know much about animals before spotting chewed-up trees while walking through the northern California city of Napa, in a region more famous for winemaking than critters. He later watched the beavers build a dam on the trickle, turning the area into a lush pond for herons, minks, and other species, and became a fan.
“It was like a little magical place with an incredible amount of wild animals,” Cohn said. That was eight years ago, he said, adding that beaver sightings are becoming rarer here due to rapid development, but he can still find them in streams all over Napa.
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