For water in the faucets, you need beavers in the mountains

The evidence of how beavers protect land when wildfires burn through, and how they restore degraded ecosystems much faster and much less expensively than humans can, is piling up in a remarkable fashion. And it’s encouraging many projects to reintroduce beavers all across the landscapes that are most likely to burn – unsurprisingly, many of them are in California.

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash

Heidi Perryman calls them the trickle down economy that works. “Let’s call them water savers,” she says. If you want water in your taps, there should be beavers in the mountains.

An award-winning film calls Heidi and others the ‘Beaver Believers’, who want people to embrace a new paradigm for managing western lands in partnership with the natural world. “Beavers can show us the way and do much of the work for us, if only we can find the humility to trust the restorative power of nature and our own ability to play a positive role within it.”

As a keystone species, beavers enrich their ecosystems and create “the biodiversity, complexity, and resiliency our watersheds need to absorb the impacts of climate change”. Their engineering skills turn the land into a sponge, recharging the groundwater and providing habitat for fish. And in a time of gloom and doom, restoring beavers to the streams they once occupied is an opportunity for people to address global warming in a practical way, the film suggests.

And there is lots of proof.

In California, ecologists dealing with a dried out creek bed in Placer County didn’t have the million dollars they would need to bring in heavy equipment to restore the creek to health. So they brought in beavers to do the work instead. It cost them $58,000 to prepare the site, and the restoration took three years instead of a decade. The beavers brought Doty Ravine back to life, reconnecting the stream to the floodplain –  for free.

“It was insane, it was awesome,” said Lynnette Batt, the conservation director of the Placer Land Trust, which owns and maintains the Doty Ravine Preserve. “It went from dry grassland. .. to totally revegetated, trees popping up, willows, wetland plants of all types, different meandering stream channels across about 60 acres of floodplain.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported the work through its Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. Since 2014, it has worked with the Placer Land Trust to restore and enhance habitat for migratory birds, waterfowl, salmon and steelhead by unleashing the beavers, a keystone species, reported the Sacramento Bee.

Further north in California, near the border with Oregon, is another beaver restoration program. It’s situated in the Scott Valley, which once was so rich with beavers that the first European settlers originally called it Beaver Valley.

It had been a rich landscape of ponds and meadows with abundant fish and wildlife – but then the beavers were trapped and killed in their thousands.”The beavers, and the dams they built, had been the keystone of the Valley’s abundance by holding and storing water and rich alluvial sediment,” says the Scott River Watershed Council, which began working with a small remnant population of beavers in 2008.

“Their removal started a trajectory of environmental degradation, which has been further accelerated by intensive logging, fire suppression, road building, channelization of the river and streams, as well as the extraction of water for human use. The result is a valley with less water, fewer salmon and an increasingly stressed ecosystem.” That is what the Council is working to change.

One reason many people don’t like beavers is that they think they are detrimental to fish. But the Council has learned that beavers are crucial for coho salmon in particular, because they slow down the water flow. And they say that people are beginning to appreciate that these small dispersed water sources are much more effective at recharging ground water than are large human-built dams.

There are between 15-25 million beavers in North America where there once were about 400 million beavers before they were relentlessly trapped, according to Emily Fairfax, the researcher who has popularized ‘Smokey the Beaver’ as a way to promote the work that beavers do in helping to protect the land during wildfires.

Beavers build dams in order to create ponds, and they extend their system of channels far beyond the pond, providing water for vegetation that grows all around the ponds and streams. When there are no beavers, the vegetation on either side of streams dries up during drought because their roots no longer have water, and a fire will burn rapidly through the dead vegetation. But where beavers have been at work, there is sufficient water that the roots don’t dry out even when there is a drought.

As a result, when a fire burns through, there is a definable difference between the riparian areas where beavers have been at work and the areas where there are no beavers, even in very large and hot fires.

In February 2019, Emily Fairfax made a 44-second video about beavers. To her surprise, the video blew up on twitter, with about 5,000 shares and 15,000 likes. Here, Fairfax explains what captivates her about wetlands and beavers, what she’s learned and why we all should see beavers in a positive light.

“It’s huge when you think about fires in California because time is so valuable,” Fairfax told the Bee. “If you can stall the fire, if you can stop it from just ripping through the landscape, even if that beaver pond can’t actually stop the fire itself, just stalling it can give the firefighters a chance to get a hold on it.”

The beaver wetlands also offer a refuge for wildlife that can’t outrun a wild fire, she says.

“The beavers are creating these patches, these fire refuges that don’t burn anywhere near as intensely,” Fairfax said. “So it’s a relatively safe spot for animals to wait and let the fire pass.”

Further reading:

The beavers returning to the desert. BBC Future Planet, Jul. 14, 2021