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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

A secret weapon against wildfire returns

(l-r) William Garfield, former Tule River tribal Chairman, and current Tule River Tribal Council members Kenneth C. McDarment and Franklin Carabay are working to restore beaver habitat.
Mark Schapiro
(l-r) William Garfield, former Tule River tribal Chairman, and current Tule River Tribal Council members Kenneth C. McDarment and Franklin Carabay are working to restore beaver habitat.

This is the third story in a series. Listen to the rest at kalw.org/elements.

"Beavers could really be a part of a mosaic of a more resilient landscape."
Brock Dolman

This story examines Fire. It's one of our most potent metaphors. It can be passionate, urgent and dangerous. And fire has always played a starring role in storytelling.

The poets of ancient Greece described how a minor god, Prometheus, defied the wishes of Zeus and delivered fire to the mortals below. Zeus was so angry that the magic of fire slipped from the control of the gods that he had Prometheus chained to a rock and condemned for eternity to have his liver devoured by an eagle.

We humans, on the other hand, have been thanking Prometheus ever since. We found out what Zeus knew: fire equals power. Heat transforms one thing into another. It made it possible to cook. It can change iron into steel, powders into explosives, and turn ground beans into drinkable coffee. But in California, we’ve come to know fire’s dangers all too well. Now, more people are coming around to an old idea: That a resilient ecosystem can prevent uncontrolled fires before they start. And this is where beavers come in.

This story was made to be heard. Click the play button above to listen if you are able

MARK SCHAPIRO: I’m walking on a path on the east fork of Fryar Creek, on the edge of a Sonoma housing development. To our right, brown grasses line the pathway, like straw. To our left is a very large pond, clear blue green, shaded by willow trees, and running across the pond are piles of mud and twigs.

BROCK DOLMAN: It’s squishy squishy.

MARK SCHAPIRO: That’s Brock Dolman. He’s a wildlife ecologist with the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. And he’s introducing me to what many wildlife specialists consider to be one of California’s best, under-rated firefighters–beaver dams.

BROCK DOLMAN: Every beaver dam mission you ever go on at some point, you're risking getting your feet wet 

MARK SCHAPIRO: Beaver dams have steep, sloping sides.  

BROCK DOLMAN: This dam here is, the shape of it is like a pyramid, like a trapezoid, a little pyramid. So it's got a very steep face underwater. And then it's very narrow crown, if you will, a crest on the dam, and then quite a steep face on the backside. 

MARK SCHAPIRO: Beavers are nature’s hydro-engineers. They build dams to create water barriers against predators. Lucky for us, those barriers create long-lasting ponds and wetlands. That’s why some scientists – like Brock, who lives in fire-ravaged Sonoma County – want more beavers around.

BROCK DOLMAN: Water doesn't burn. And when you have wetted areas and wetland areas and riparian corridors, riverside stream corridors, ecosystems, and open water habitats, those are less flammable habitats.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Like the creek we’re on now.

BROCK DOLMAN: It’s clearly less flammable along this corridor than it otherwise would be if this channel was simply a small thin ribbon of a trickle, which is what it normally is during the dry season.

BrockkDolman and allies believe beavers are one of our best tool for fighting wildfires
Mark Schapiro
BrockkDolman and allies believe beavers are one of our best tool for fighting wildfires

MARK SCHAPIRO: Now, thanks in part to the beavers, it’s a 50-foot wide pond. Brock says beavers create an “emerald green wet necklace” of fire protection, and he’s spent more than a decade lobbying the state to restore beaver habitats and protect them from being killed by hunters and landowners.

Brock was inspired by the work of a scientist who was then at California State University’s campus in the Channel Islands, who hypothesized that beaver habitat reduces wildfires.

BROCK DOLMAN: Dr. Emily Fairfax decided to use this amazing data that we have, such as Google Earth. 

MARK SCHAPIRO: Doctor Fairfax, obtained footage from fire-damaged parts of the Pacific Northwest and California and found that the areas around beaver habitats emerged largely unscathed. Sheconcluded that beavers could play a significant role in reducing the spread of wildfires.

BROCK DOLMAN: Beavers could really be a part of a mosaic of a more resilient landscape. 

MARK SCHAPIRO: Doctor Fairfax even coined a phrase to evoke the animal’s role in fire prevention: Smokey the Beaver.

But the beaver population is under threat. From the early 19th century, when beavers were plentifulacross much of California, their population plunged by more than ninety percent.

To learn more about why that happened and what that means for the beaver as fire-protector today, I head further up the Sonoma Coast.

We're here at Fort Ross. beautiful, breezy, brisk, clear blue sky. clouds hanging over this amazing wooden Russian fort on the coast just above Jenner, which is where the saga of the beavers, or the saga of the beaver reintroduction into California, really begins.

I’m here to meet Kate Lundquist, Brock’s colleague at the Occidental Arts and Ecology program. We’re at Fort Ross because, in the

1800s, this was a base for Russian hunters, who nearly wiped out California’s beaver population.

KATE LUNDQUIST: I brought the beaver pelt. This is a young one but you can see this is the the undercoat that is what makes the best felt for hats.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Russian fur traders hunted beaver for hat-making. They sent huge bundles of beaver, seal and other furs to fashionistas back in Europe.

KATE LUNDQUIST: Right there, that short hair, so all of these guard hairs would have been plucked, and then they would use these to make the felt for the top hats and all the other hats. That’s what made beaver so highly sought after, because it's perfect for felting.

MARK SCHAPIRO: The Russian’s fur trade only stopped in the 1840swhen they couldn’t find any more of the animals to hunt.

By the 1920’s, the state was alarmed enough by the disappearing beaver population that it put heavy restrictions on hunting them. But that didn’t last long. In the 1940s, a group of UC Berkeley wildlife biologists surveyed California’s plant and animal life and made a fateful mistake: They mis-labeled the animal as non-native in most of the state, including the Bay Area. As decades passed and California boomed, limits were lifted on hunting beavers.

KATE LUNDQUIST: Basically 1970s on, California was getting much more developed. And beaver was starting to kind of be a pain to developers, water managers, and particularly those in our farming areas where they were draining the beaver wetlands and turning them into farmlands.

Kate Lundquist in the pelt room at Ft. Ross
Mark Schapiro
Kate Lundquist in the pelt room at Ft. Ross

MARK SCHAPIRO: The state considered beavers an invasive species, pests. Which is how beaver were treated. Until the fires started raging across California in the last two decades.

KATE LUNDQUIST: We're having all these catastrophic effects from climate change, that people started thinking, “Wait a minute, we need to release, restore these watersheds, we need to pull out all the stops, get super creative.”  

MARK SCHAPIRO: As beavers’ role in creating and sustaining wetlands came to be better understood, the tide started to turn.

Kate joined forces with her colleagues at the Occidental Arts and Ecology center, with scientists like Emily Fairfax, and with several native tribes to strengthen protection for beavers. They argued that beavers are one of the best tools we have for fighting wildfires, and regenerating depleted ecosystems.

KATE LUNDQUIST: the more we can get water out onto the landscape and keep it there and have it be managed by a species that's really good at it, beaver the more resilient we're going to be. 

MARK SCHAPIRO: It was time, they said, to bring them back.

But first, in order to get permission from the state to bring them back, the group had to prove beavers were native to California. Kate started poring through historical archives, going to archaeology conferences, asking scholars about beavers.

KATE LUNDQUIST: And sure enough, they're like, “Oh, yeah, well, gosh, we found a beaver tooth here on the coast. Check it out,” and, “Oh, gosh, we've got all of these collections of bones. There may be beaver in here, we just didn't realize you all are having this argument about whether beaver are native.”

MARK SCHAPIRO: Once she started looking, Kate found evidence of beavers everywhere. The Russiantraders killed a lot of beaver, but kept very good records. Their accounting offered evidence: Two hundred years ago, California’s coast was crawling with beaver.

Kate also spoke with indigenous tribes across the state, and learned they had evidence of beavers going back hundreds of years–500 year old pelts from the Yurok tribe, beaver teeth in an Ohlone Shellmound. Nearly two-dozen tribes from the coast to the mountains had names for beaver long before European settlers arrived.

One of those is the Tule River Tribe, originally native to the Central Valley around Tulare [too-LAIR-ee] Lake, now living on a reservation in the foothills of the Sierras, below Sequoia National Park. Like the rest of California, they’ve been experiencing the climate extremes. After years of drought. their land was devastated by the Windy fire in 2021. During the freak floods of 2023, the Tule River raced through those charred woods en route to filling up what had been the empty Tulare Lake.

The burned out husks of pine, oak and sequoias still line the steep hills of the reservation. On a reservation with abundant trees, grasses and brush, fire is a constant concern. Now the tribe is working with Brock and Kate and other beaver activists in the state to reintroduce beaver.

MARK SCHAPIRO: That’s the Tule River, which runs through the reservation.  I went out there with a member of the Tribal Council, Ken McDarmentand his colleague, former Council member William Garfield, who now works with the USDA’s Forest Service on Tribal Relations.

When they were kids they’d go swimming in the river.

WILLIAM GARFIELD: And this is the the main hangout for swimming. And this is where everybody comes on those hot days. 

MARK SCHAPIRO: I followed William over a couple of boulders to a kind of cave overlooking the river. Above our heads, we’re looking at a pictograph.

WILLIAM GARFIELD: There’s a beaver right there.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Oh, that looks like a beaver, made out of ochres and reds and blacks….

MARK SCHAPIRO: These pictographs may be 1,000 years old.

WILLIAM GARFIELD: They were here before so, you know, let's try to get them back here. They have their own job. Everybody has a role in this community, no matter what their position is, and the beaver, he's probably got one of the most important roles. He makes dams, he spreads the water out. Hopefully we get some ground recharge and some of the springs come back, you know? That's the main goal. 

MARK SCHAPIRO: And some fire protection too?

WILLIAM GARFIELD: Yeah fire protection. We get more wetlands and then we don't have to worry about the fire crossing streams or creeks. Any areas to be in would be good if they could slow it down some.

MARK SCHAPIRO: William’s colleague, Ken McDarment, oversees the beaver restoration effort. During the last multi-year drought, he recalled thinking of that pictograph and stories he’d heard from his grandparents about beavers. He told me, he remembers thinking: “We have them in our pictographs and that says it all.” Maybe beaver dams could slow down the water flowing off the Sierras that now goes right through the reservation without stopping.

To do that, they first need to prepare the landscape for the beavers by, well, thinking like a beaver.

We head over to the lower meadow, trudging through grasses and spongy water-soaked soil to a tributary of the Tule River. Tribal crews have been piling branches laced with brush and leaves across the burbling creek, to create a habitat and plenty of woodsy food for the beavers that the tribe will be re-introducing here.

Pools of water radiate out from the barriers, in what Ken said used to be just dry patches of grass and brush.

Tribe members prepare beaver habitat on this Tule River tributary
Mark Schapiro
Tribe members prepare beaver habitat on this Tule River tributary

KEN McDARMENT: And then over time as the water continues to come through this area, it'll turn this area into a wetland. And then you'll see this area come alive with the grasses from the wetlands and the waterfowl from the wetland and even fish will start to occupy this area now that the water is coming through here. This will be a great big safety zone for all the animals of and wildlife of the forest when it does get time for a wildfire because the wildfire won't come into these areas, they'll stop at the edge.

MARK SCHAPIRO: It took more than ten years but in May 2022, the state Fish & Wildlife Service did a U-turn and declared that beavers are, indeed, native to California. The state’s Fish & Wildlife Service put new rules into place to discourage the killing of beavers and thanked the Occidental Arts and Ecology Centerfor their contribution to the growing awareness of the beavers’ role in wildfire control. Governor Newsom allocated three million dollars to kick-start the restoration of beaver habitatsin California and in tribal communities. The Tule River tribal program is now considered one of the two pilot projects in the state for the reintroduction of beavers

The tribe plans to move a family of beavers onto their land in late 2023 or early 2024. They’ll obtain them, McDarment told me, from the Fish & Wildlife Service, which is helping to identify beaver populations in the area that are potentially threatened and seen as a ‘nuisance.’ Here on the Tule River, they’ll be welcome, as they will be, for the first time in almost a century, across California, where their eco-engineering skills are destined to become key ingredients in the fight against wildfires.

The Elements Series was financially supported by Invoking the Pause foundation and by the journalism non-profit, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project

This story aired in the October 4, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.

Mark Schapiro is an award-winning investigative journalist and author specializing in the environment. He is also a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism