Yes, beavers can help stop wildfires. And more places in California are embracing them

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Alex Wigglesworth | Los Angeles Times (TNS)

A vast burn scar unfolds in drone footage of a landscape seared by massive wildfires north of Lake Tahoe. But amid the expanses of torched trees and gray soil, an unburnt island of lush green emerges.

The patch of greenery was painstakingly engineered. A creek had been dammed, creating ponds that slowed the flow of water so the surrounding earth had more time to sop it up. A weblike system of canals helped spread that moisture through the floodplain. Trees that had been encroaching on the wetlands were felled.

But it wasn’t a team of firefighters or conservationists who performed this work. It was a crew of semiaquatic rodents whose wetland-building skills have seen them gain popularity as a natural way to mitigate wildfires.

A movement is afoot to restore beavers to the state’s waterways, many of which have suffered from their absence.

“Beavers belong in California, and they should be part of our fire management plan,” said Emily Fairfax, assistant professor of geography at the University of Minnesota, who shot the drone footage of a series of beaver ponds along Little Last Chance Creek that remained green in the wake of the 2021 Beckwourth Complex fire.

Fairfax’s recent research found that beavers’ skills are useful even in the face of megafires like the Beckwourth— a 105,000-acre behemoth whose burn scar joined with that of the Dixie fire, which started weeks later and burned more than 960,000 neighboring acres.

“They basically build up an ecosystem that’s resilient to fire through the vegetation mosaic, then keep it really well watered so it never dries out, never becomes easy to burn,” she said.

Native to much of California, beavers were hunted to near extinction throughout North America by fur traders in the 1800s. Their numbers have rebounded in some areas, with populations in the Sierra Nevada, northeastern California and along the Salinas River Corridor from San Luis Obispo to Monterey, but they’ve had a hard time recovering overall.

The roly-poly rodents chew up and move around large amounts of plant material, damming streams to create ponds where they can hide from predators. They dig channels stretching from those ponds deeper into forests so they can forage for food without leaving the water. These activities can convert narrow streams into massive wetland complexes.

“They are just trying to build themselves a mega shopping mart so that they can go and get the groceries all the time, in all four seasons,” said Kate Lundquist, co-director of the nonprofit Occidental Arts & Ecology Center Water Institute. “And the result of that is you have these really resilient oases that won’t burn in a fire.”

Beavers can also help restore burned areas: Their dams trap ash and debris, and their wetlands help rehydrate landscapes, supporting the growth of grasses and shrubs, Lundquist said.

This can improve water quality, store carbon and support habitat for endangered species, disproportionately benefiting the entire ecosystem, said Brock Dolman, co-director of the Water Institute.

“All of these issues that we have state or federal laws and programs we’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on to address, in many cases, beavers are showing up as a partner that can help us mitigate some of those,” he said.

But the same skills that make beavers such keen ecosystem engineers have also gained them enemies among farmers, ranchers and other landowners. Beavers’ dam-building and tree-chewing can flood roads and pastures and damage or destroy crops, timber stores and landscaping plantings.

Still, their reputation as nuisance pests has been turning around.

“Over the recent decades, there’s really been this major paradigm shift surrounding how beavers are perceived,” said Valerie Cook, manager of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s beaver restoration program, which got up and running roughly a year ago and now has five dedicated staffers.

Last year, the department adopted a new policy formally recognizing beavers as a keystone species — those that play an outsized role in maintaining the diversity of their ecosystem — and encouraging landowners to try nonlethal methods for living with them before seeking approval to kill them.

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