Increasing areas in California are recognizing the potential of beavers in mitigating the risk of wildfires.

In aerial footage of the wildfire-ravaged area north of Lake Tahoe, a vast burn scar dominates the landscape. However, amidst the charred trees and barren soil, a remarkable sight stands out: an untouched oasis of vibrant greenery.

The team put in a lot of effort in creating the patch of greenery. They constructed a dam across the creek, which resulted in the formation of ponds. These ponds served the purpose of slowing down the water flow, allowing the nearby soil to absorb it more effectively. Additionally, a network of canals was built to distribute the moisture throughout the floodplain. To make way for the wetlands, the team also cleared out the trees that had encroached upon the area.

A crew of semiaquatic rodents has gained popularity for their wetland-building skills, which have proven to be a natural way to mitigate wildfires. It wasn’t firefighters or conservationists who performed this work, but these rodents who have demonstrated their ability to create wetlands.

There is a growing movement to reintroduce beavers to the waterways of the state, as many of these waterways have been negatively impacted by the absence of beavers.

According to Emily Fairfax, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Minnesota, beavers have a rightful place in California and should be included in our fire management plan. Fairfax, who captured drone footage of a chain of beaver ponds along Little Last Chance Creek, observed that these areas remained green even after the 2021 Beckwourth Complex fire.

Fairfax’s recent research has discovered that the skills of beavers remain valuable even in the presence of massive wildfires, such as the Beckwourth fire. This particular fire spanned across an impressive 105,000 acres and later merged with the Dixie fire, which ignited weeks later and consumed over 960,000 acres of neighboring land.

According to the expert, the key to building a fire-resistant ecosystem is to create a diverse vegetation mosaic and ensure that it remains well-watered at all times. This helps to prevent the vegetation from drying out and becoming susceptible to fires.

Beavers, originally from California, faced a severe decline in numbers across North America due to extensive hunting by fur traders in the 1800s. However, there has been some resurgence in certain regions such as the Sierra Nevada, northeastern California, and the Salinas River Corridor from San Luis Obispo to Monterey. Despite localized recoveries, the overall population of beavers continues to struggle.

The plump rodents gnaw on and displace significant quantities of vegetation, constructing dams in streams to form ponds that serve as their refuge from predators. They excavate pathways that extend from these ponds further into the forests, allowing them to search for food without having to leave the water. These actions have the potential to transform narrow streams into expansive wetland systems.

According to Kate Lundquist, co-director of the nonprofit Occidental Arts & Ecology Center Water Institute, the purpose behind building a mega shopping mart is to ensure easy access to groceries throughout the year. This strategy aims to create resilient oases that are less susceptible to wildfires.

Beavers have the ability to aid in the restoration of burned areas. By constructing dams, they are able to trap ash and debris, preventing further damage. Additionally, their wetlands play a crucial role in rehydrating the landscapes, which promotes the growth of grasses and shrubs. This demonstrates the positive impact that beavers can have on the recovery process.

According to Brock Dolman, co-director of the Water Institute, improving water quality, storing carbon, and supporting habitat for endangered species can have a significant positive impact on the entire ecosystem.

According to the spokesperson, beavers have proven to be valuable allies in addressing various issues that require substantial funding and government programs. Instead of solely relying on state or federal laws, these industrious creatures can assist in mitigating problems that cost millions of dollars to resolve.

Beavers, with their remarkable skills as ecosystem engineers, have unfortunately made some enemies among farmers, ranchers, and landowners. The very same abilities that allow them to build dams and chew trees also pose challenges, such as flooding roads, pastures, and causing damage to crops, timber stores, and landscaping plantings.

However, their image as bothersome pests has been changing.

According to Valerie Cook, manager of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s beaver restoration program, there has been a significant change in how beavers are viewed in recent years. The program, which began operating about a year ago and now has a team of five dedicated staff members, reflects this shift in perception.

In the past year, the department has implemented a new policy that officially acknowledges beavers as a keystone species. These remarkable creatures are known for their significant role in preserving the diversity of their ecosystem. Moreover, the department encourages landowners to explore nonlethal strategies for coexisting with beavers before resorting to lethal methods.

The state has allocated approximately $2 million in grant funding to landowners to support nonlethal methods in managing beavers. These methods include using sand-paint mixtures to discourage beavers from chewing through trees, implementing devices to prevent blockages in water control structures, and utilizing pond levelers to regulate flooding by allowing water to flow through dams. Cook stated that tribes, public agencies, and non-governmental organizations are eligible to apply for funding to carry out projects promoting peaceful coexistence between humans and beavers.

Program staffers have also relocated beavers from areas of human-wildlife conflict to regions where they can have a positive impact.

In the autumn, the initiative began with the reintroduction of a family of seven beavers into Tásmam Koyóm, a meadow located on the ancestral land of the Mountain Maidu in Plumas County. According to Cook, it seems that one of the young beavers has formed a bond with a resident beaver who was already residing a short distance downstream.

This summer, the Tule River Tribe, known for its leading role in beaver restoration efforts in California, has plans to release more beavers on the Tule River Reservation. Located in the foothills of the southern Sierra, this reservation is set to welcome these industrious creatures to further enhance their ecosystem.

In 2014, Kenneth McDarment, former vice chairman, initiated the tribe’s beaver project in response to the dry and fire-prone conditions caused by prolonged drought.

He said, “Why not bring the beaver home?”

Tribal members and partners have dedicated years to preparing the area, constructing beaver dam analogues to create an environment that encourages their return, McDarment explained. These meadows, situated alongside the dammed riverscapes, have already served as safe havens for wildlife during multiple fires that have ravaged the reservation in recent years, he added.

They have also made sure that there is an abundant supply of plants for the beavers to feed on and created deep pools for them to seek refuge from predators. This includes the recent addition of the Yowlumni wolf pack, which was first spotted in the area last summer.

“We’ve been eagerly anticipating this moment for quite some time,” McDarment expressed with a sense of satisfaction. “There’s just something special about finally getting our hands on them, witnessing their growth, observing their expansion, and seeing them thrive in the creeks and river.”

The state’s beaver program is currently inviting proposals from other landowners who are interested in having beavers on their properties for restoration purposes. According to Cook, the program’s staff intends to choose at least one more project to work on this year. They are currently creating a scoring system to evaluate these proposals and prioritize areas where beavers can have the greatest positive impact. One of the factors they will consider is the likelihood of severe wildfires occurring in the project area.

Experts caution that beavers alone cannot solve California’s wildfire problems. The increased flammability of the state’s chaparral-studded hillsides and densely forested mountain slopes is a result of various factors such as human extraction, development, and climate change. Therefore, restoring the resilience of these ecosystems to fire requires a range of interventions, according to Fairfax.

According to the expert, beavers have a significant impact on the riverscape and river corridors. However, they are not capable of navigating uphill slopes, mountainsides, or forests in those areas.

Researchers have found that beavers can play a crucial role in creating natural fire breaks within river corridors. They achieve this by rewetting meadows and reducing the encroachment of forests.

According to Karen Pope, an aquatic ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station, the idea is straightforward: if you moisten a larger, more extensive area, you can effectively prevent fires, to some extent.

According to Pope’s research, the Sierra region used to be home to almost three times the number of meadows it has today. However, during the Gold Rush, the arrival of colonizers led to significant changes in the landscape. Grazing activities by these settlers altered the vegetation and caused instability in the riverbanks. Additionally, meadows were drained to make space for various land uses. Over time, roads were constructed with culverts that restricted the natural flow of water, and excessive irrigation and groundwater pumping depleted aquifers, disrupting the connection between rivers and underground water reserves.

According to Pope, the incision of streams has led to the formation of deep channels, which function as drains and cause a decrease in the water table. This change in the landscape has resulted in the displacement of meadows by coniferous trees.

According to the expert, the restoration of these areas will serve as a natural fuel break. This means that if these areas can retain their wetness even during the dry season, they will not require regular maintenance to prevent wildfires. Instead, nature itself will act as a protective barrier against potential fires.

In Pope’s recent study, conducted in the Sierra and Plumas national forests, the main focus is on the restoration of meadows in both burned and unburned areas. The research explores the use of techniques such as building beaver dam analogues to rewet these meadows. Although the findings have not been officially published, the initial results are promising. Pope mentioned that the installation of these structures led to the immediate replenishment of groundwater in some previously depleted meadows.

According to Pope, the objectives of these interventions are two-fold: to restore the wetlands and to attract beavers to inhabit and sustain them.

According to the expert, the ultimate goal is for the beavers to return and show their approval by saying, “We like what you did.”

Fairfax has emerged as a prominent advocate for beavers nationwide, captivating audiences with her captivating stop-motion animation video that showcases how beaver wetlands can effectively mitigate the severity of wildfires. Additionally, her innovative idea of “Smokey the Beaver,” a beaver counterpart to the iconic bear symbolizing fire suppression, has garnered widespread attention. Collaborating with Google, Fairfax is currently developing a cutting-edge machine learning model capable of identifying beaver dams in satellite imagery.

In previous studies, she discovered that beavers play a significant role in creating safe havens from wildfires. These refuges act as islands that remain unburned or only slightly affected by the flames, allowing plants and animals to survive. However, there was uncertainty about whether this phenomenon would still hold true during megafires. Megafires, which span over 100,000 acres and exhibit intense, self-sustaining behaviors, posed a new challenge to beaver-made refuges.

In their latest study, Fairfax and his colleagues utilized remote sensing techniques to analyze the extent of damage caused by three large-scale wildfires that occurred in the Rocky Mountains in 2020. The findings revealed that approximately 89% of the surrounding area near beaver ponds and dams served as fire refuges, in comparison to only 60% of the riverscapes without beaver dams. These findings have implications for California, a region characterized by coniferous forests and reliant on snowpack to maintain moisture levels during the comparatively dry summer months, as stated by Fairfax.

According to Fairfax, from an ecological standpoint, the unaffected area is akin to a bubble in the surrounding landscape that remains unchanged despite the fire’s devastation. Although the neighboring areas may resemble a scorched moonscape, this particular spot still boasts mature trees, thriving grasses, and a diverse range of wildlife, including beavers and bobcats. This untouched habitat provides a safe haven for these species to reproduce and eventually repopulate the surrounding landscape in the aftermath of the fire.

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