Beavers aid in climate battle, local experts fight to protect species in California

Jul 27, 2021

Wild beavers play a critical role in the fight against climate change by creating wetlands that combat drought and wildfire.

The species is native to California — but unlike beavers in Oregon and Washington, they aren’t protected from being trapped and killed in the state.

Beavers have existed in North America for millions of years, with large populations in the American west.

European colonization and the fur trade caused their numbers to dwindle but they’ve been making a comeback in recent decades. Beavers live across California — many right here on the Central Coast in the Salinas, Arroyo Seco and Santa Ynez Rivers.

Beaver expert Dr. Emily Fairfax said protecting these animals is crucial. She’s a hydrologist and teaches environmental science and resource management at California State University (CSU) Channel Islands.

She’s been studying a beaver habitat in the Salinas River over the past year and a half. She said she has seen the riverbed change from dry and sandy to a productive wetland.

Fairfax said beaver behavior can be instrumental in helping humans address drought and wildfire, which are exacerbated by climate change.

“Feel the water, feel how cool it is,” Fairfax said. “When I was out here and it was like 105 degrees, the water was still about 70 [degrees]. It’s remarkable how they can create such a stable system in the middle of a very dramatically changing climate.”

She said the west has lost about 90 percent of its wetlands, but beavers build dams that bring back wetland in existing river ecosystems. The dams expand the surface area of the streams and slows the flow of water, which helps restore the groundwater.

“In the American West we are in what is called a mega-drought, because so many places are in drought right now and that drought is severe,” Fairfax said. “When you have a mega-drought, all the vegetation in the landscape is vulnerable. If it starts to run out of water, it will start to shut down.”

Fairfax said beaver wetlands also create a natural barrier to fires. If one reaches the edge of a beaver habitat, the expanded wetland and moist vegetation make it difficult for the fire to spread further, at least slowing it down to make containment easier.

“When you have an ignition event, when you have a lightning strike, when you have a match, when you have a campfire, when you have a power line, when any of these things happen, that’s not gonna turn into an out of control wildfire unless you have fuel,” Fairfax said. “And fuel isn’t really fuel unless it’s dry.”

Fairfax said people sometimes find themselves in conflict with beavers because the animals may move into areas that create problems for landowners. They can cause unintentional flooding of property and chew down trees and bushes, but there are mitigation tactics that can be used to help humans coexist with beavers.

Cooper Leinhart is a Cal Poly graduate and currently getting a certification to practice non-lethal beaver management.

“I’ll be able to help any land owners if they [have] beaver problems. I can wrap their trees so they don’t get chewed down,” Leinhart said. “We can actually run a pipe through a beaver dam and control the height so that beavers can keep building up their dam but the pond won’t get any higher. So the beavers can stay living there and we won’t have to worry about flooding damage.”

Leinhart said he is considering approaching property owners adjacent to the Salinas River beaver habitat in Atascadero to see if there is any work he can do for them to make cohabitation possible.

He said this kind of work is really important in California because state law currently classifies beavers as pests, making it illegal to move them. So, if a landowner is in conflict with beavers, the only options are mitigation tactics or trapping and killing.

Legislation in Oregon and Washington allows for the relocation of beavers to more suitable habitat throughout the states.

Fairfax is hopeful legislation will change in California to allow for the legal movement of beavers, so they can continue to reduce the impacts of climate change.

“There are beavers in downtown San Jose. There are beavers in San Diego. There are beavers that move onto military bases. Those aren’t really great places for the beavers. It’s not good for their survival and it’s definitely not good for the people who own that land,” Fairfax said. “But they can’t be moved, so in that case, California does still issue lethal trapping permits for nuisance beavers.”

Last year, the number of beavers trapped across the state was estimated to be between 1,000 and 2,500.

Fairfax said this is problematic because as long as beavers are keeping up their dam, the wetland remains. But as soon as they are removed, the habitat can change.

“At that point, when the beavers leave, this will go right back to being a degraded system.”

The San Luis Obispo Beaver Brigade is a local beaver advocacy group. They hold regular beaver walks for the public to see the animals’ habitat first hand. You can find out more about how to get involved here.