Beavers Are Firefighters Who Work for Free
BY LUCY SHERRIFF | MAY 4 2021
Since Kenneth McDarment was a kid in the 1980s, he’s seen the foothills of the Sierra Nevada change. As a councilman of the Tule River Tribe, a sovereign nation of around 1,000 members living on 56,000-odd acres in the foothills of the Sierras, McDarment deals with everything water-related on the reservation. Today there’s less rain and less snow than there was even a decade ago, which means that the land in the foothills was dangerously dry during the last fire season, when wildfires were sweeping across the state. “If you don’t got water,” says McDarment. “We don’t got nothing.”
So, in 2014, McDarment began looking into getting ahold of some beavers. McDarment hoped that beaver dams would create soggy areas on tribal lands that wouldn’t dry out during heat waves. “We’re hoping that means our land will be less likely to burn during fire season,” he says. “Beavers were here originally. So why not bring them back and let them do the work they do naturally?”
There was just one problem—it is illegal to move beavers without a permit. And a permit to move a beaver isn’t easy to come by.
If a farmer, landowner, or property developer wants to get a beaver out of a certain area, it’s easier to kill the beaver than to apply to move it elsewhere. Across the states, it’s common for landowners to dynamite beaver dams, with whole forums dedicated to the topic and dramatic instructional YouTube videos.
In 2019, the California Fish and Wildlife Department issued 187 depredation permits to kill beavers across the state. In 2020, that number rose to 204. While not all permits are necessarily fulfilled, it’s also true that multiple beavers in a single area can be killed under one permit. Despite the fact that beavers once roamed far and wide across the state’s waterways, it’s illegal under California law to release one into a new location. Though beavers are native to the state, they weren’t recognized as such by California Fish and Wildlife until 2013.
The beaver does more to shape its environment than nearly any other animal on Earth. Beavers can cause incredible amounts of destruction to infrastructure, downing power lines and blocking and rerouting waterways. But their dam-building also can improve water quality, reduce flood risk, and create the conditions for complex wetland habitats to form—providing refuge for wildlife and storing carbon in the process.
“It’s not that complicated,” says Joe Wheaton, an associate professor at Utah State’s Department of Watershed Sciences, who developed the university’s BRAT project (short for Beaver Restoration Assessment Tool). The initiative serves as a planning aid for researchers and restoration managers who are looking to assess the potential of beavers to restore watersheds. Wheaton has worked on the Tule River Tribe’s reintroduction project and many others across the States. “If you wet up the sponge of your valley bottom, you have the potential to at least slow the spread, if not at least have the land act as livestock and wildlife refuge during wildfires. If you have a wide enough valley bottom, and beaver are present, it can be big enough to actually stop the advance of these wildfires. That information just needs to get out there.”
If you can’t catch a beaver, build it a house
The Tule Tribe wasn’t the only one trying to bring back beavers to manage the land. The Tulalip Tribes, situated in the western corner of Washington, noticed around 2012 that beavers had started to make a comeback, but only in the lowlands—beavers prefer lower elevations, where the water flow is slower.
Since Washington also banned beaver relocation, the tribe began building beaver analogs—essentially manmade beaver dams—to entice the animals into returning. And it worked. The beavers began using the analogs as footholds to build their own dams. In this case, says wildlife biologist Molly Alves, who led the tribe’s reintroduction, the goal was to create better conditions for salmon. Beavers not only carve out channels and streams that leave behind cooler water—and improved water quality—for salmon, but their ponds also create ideal nurseries for juvenile fish. “We wanted to return beavers to their historic habitat,” Alves says. “It was from a salmon habitat restoration perspective.”
After months of to-ing and fro-ing, the Tulalip were able to leverage their sovereign rights as a tribe to get a letter of exception from the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Service, which allowed them to relocate beavers to their lands beginning in 2014.
The program was a success. The beavers adapted to their new habitats and quickly began to create better salmon habitat. Within a few years, Alves and the team of scientists and tribe members working on the project began receiving calls from nonprofits, county officials, and landowners from all over the state, asking how to move beavers without having to kill them. Word of the tribe’s work had spread around the state.
Because the Tulalip were operating under sovereign rights and had a letter of exception, they were the only non-lethal beaver removal entity in the whole of western Washington. Callers complained about beavers on their property, flooding roads, and felling trees. “They were frustrated and angry because they didn’t understand how to deal with the problem,” says Alves. “They wanted the beavers to stay alive, but they didn’t have any means to do that.”
Alves and her team began working with the Tulalip’s team of lobbyists to try to amend HB 1257 (also known as the Beaver Bill), which limited the release of wild beavers, to make it possible for non-tribal groups to relocate beavers to any preapproved private land as long as the habitat was deemed suitable and unoccupied via a GIS model and in-person assessment and Washington Fish and Wildlife gives its approval. Alves also worked with Washington Fish and Wildlife on developing a Certified Beaver Relocator training program.
When Alves went to testify at the statehouse and Senate in support of the amendment, legislators weren’t sure what to make of it, she says. “People were giggling and were like ‘Oh, the beaver bill.’” But in 2017, the bill was amended and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife created a statewide pilot project, which is now in its second year.
One of the best parts of being involved, says Alves, is seeing the perception of beavers shift in real-time. “Normally people were fine going out back with their shotgun and dealing with the problem themselves,” she says. While plenty of landowners across the state still call wildlife control rather than the tribe if there is a beaver they want to get rid of, the Tulalip are also working with trappers who catch beavers on private land to donate those beavers to wetlands restoration projects.
It’s also true, says Alves, that some landowners who have called the Tulalip to help them remove a beaver on their property have changed their minds after they learn more about how beaver management can aid watersheds. In areas where beavers have been relocated, the Tulalip found a two-degree celsius cooling of water downstream of dams. The amount of surface water present on the landscape increased by 2.5 times. “We know we’re going to have more, and more-severe, fires,” says Alves. “But we feel that with beavers, the land will have the best chance of surviving.”
Dr. Emily Fairfax and the case of the missing beaver research
One thing that has been missing in the discussion of beavers and wildfires has been science connecting the two. But that is beginning to change. In 2018, Emily Fairfax, a young PhD student studying hydrological science at the University of Colorado Boulder saw a tweet posted by Joe Wheaton, of the wildfire-scorched landscape following Idaho’s Sharps Fire, with a small patch of green at the center. “Why is there an impressive patch of green in the middle of 65,000 acres of charcoal? Turns out water doesn’t burn. Thank you beaver!” wrote Wheaton.
Three years earlier, Fairfax had quit her job as a systems engineer and entered a PhD program because of her obsession with beavers. She had a theory: If beavers were so beneficial to wetlands restoration projects and protection against drought, surely they must also protect against wildfires.
But she found herself struggling to find any previously published research on the subject. “It was no man’s land,” says Fairfax, who found plenty of research on beavers, fish, and waterways, but none on beavers and fire. “When you try to do new research, it really helps when you can stand on the work of previous scientists,” says Fairfax. “After a certain amount of time, after a question hasn’t been studied, you start to think, ‘Oh, it’s because there’s nothing there.’”
Instead, her leads came through people like Wheaton, and an educational site called Beavers in Brush, which aggregates information about prescribed burns, as well as rewetting the lands through beaver protection. “That made me realize this has merit, there are people who are aware that this can work,” says Fairfax “I don’t know why people haven’t studied this, but obviously this is a thing.”
Fairfax began to carry out the scientific research that she had hoped to find. Using satellite images, she mapped vegetation around beaver territories before, after, and during wildfires (footage of wildfires in progress can show how a fire moves through a landscape). She visited field sites in California, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, and Wyoming and found sections of creek that did not have beavers were on average more than three times as affected by fire—burning a bigger area—than areas where beavers had built dams.
“I expected some of the time beaver dams would work,” says Fairfax. Instead, she found the presence of beavers had significant effects. “It didn’t matter if it was one pond or 55 ponds in a row. If there were beaver dams, the land was protected from fire. It was incredible.”
Fairfax hopes her research will help change California’s strict rules around beaver relocation, the way policy is already changing in Washington, especially as wildfires in California have reached record-breaking levels over the past several years. In 2017, while McDarment was still trying to get permission to relocate beavers to tribal lands, the Pier Fire consumed 8,800 acres of Tule River tribal lands, including several giant sequoias.
McDarment’s plan is to have beavers living throughout the reservation’s 56,000 acres. “I’d like to see them slowly evolve and move into every stream and creek we’ve got,” he says. “I’m really excited to get started. I just can’t wait until we get to that point where we’re bringing a family of beavers here.” A number of other tribes in California are also exploring how they can reintroduce beaver to tribal lands.
Meanwhile, Fairfax’s research on beavers and wildfires is only beginning. “I set out to ask a question: Do beavers keep the land green during fires, yes or no?” she says. “The answer was yes. But that’s not the end of the story. Why? How? Does this happen everywhere? What if you have a tight canyon? I’m digging into the specifics now, so people can implement this and actually use beavers for fire prevention. I would love to be able to call someone up and tell them how many beaver dams they need in their creek.
“Right now I have so little advice on how to do it. But at least I can now say it works.”