As we celebrate the Summer Solstice – the year’s longest day, celebrating the fullness of life – I’m thinking about my mother, who would have just turned 88. One of her greatest gifts to me was passing along her utter wonder at nature. Mindful of her love of animals, sometime ago B. and I attended a lecture at Pepperwood Preserve – whose motto is “Inspiring Conservation through Science” – presented by Occidental Arts & Ecology Center (OAEC)’s Water Institute on the plight of the underappreciated, industrious beaver.
The Worth a Dam organization does much to dispel more destructive myths, such as that the animal eats fish (actually is herbivorous), or that the beaver itself is a fish! Perhaps presaging human hunting of beavers nearly to extinction for their warm, glossy fur, a Blackfoot legend cautions against such greed.
These large, winsome rodents historically have been seen as nuisances, due to their damage to trees, homes, and land; and occasional water diversion near man-made dams and fish ladders. Beaver dams also can attract invasive species (for instance, bass and bullfrogs), although how commonly is still unknown. The key is figuring out how best to mitigate each individual situation, managing the animals safely for all concerned. Tools are widely available to help people “remediate” beavers (and any damage they’re doing). For instance, while controversial in California, Washington is legally relocating beavers.
Though these animals walk with a distinct waddle on land, their webbed rear feet and powerful tails propel them with speed and grace in water, and many environmentalists now view them with more nuanced and educated eyes. Research strongly supports that beavers are actually helping restore waterways, and watersheds themselves: Their dams filter sediment, slow water flow, and can also reduce the impacts of flooding. Meandering water allows more natural restoration of riverine ecosystems, where juvenile fish such as salmonids can rest and mature. Biologists call beavers a “keystone species” – the habitat they create benefits many other species.
Yet even now the Department of Fish and Wildlife has no limits on “beaver take” (e.g. hunting). In response, a partnership between NOAA and California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has included the beaver in their 10-year State Wildlife Action Plan. Beavers, surprisingly, can disperse widely, and can walk up to 20 miles on land. OAEC, together with the Nature Conservancy, has redrawn the historic western beaver range. Aspiring citizen scientists can participate in the Beaver Mapper with our own sightings. OAEC is working on research and also educating the community on restoration and management with their Bring Back the Beaver Campaign. How else can we help this hardworking, unsung creature? As the beaver might say, Let the great work begin!