“Managing” wildlife to prevent nuisance prevents benefits, as well
SACRAMENTO, California––Though many individual California Department of Fish & Wildlife personnel have distinguished themselves on the frontlines of the wildfires razing Paradise, ravaging Malibu, and menacing several other communities around the state, ill-informed policy decisions made decades ago and never changed mean the 2018 fire season has not exactly been the department’s shining hour.
The Camp Fire in Butte County, the Woolsey Fire in Ventura County, the earlier Carr Fire in Shasta and Trinity Counties, the Mendocino Complex Fire, and many of the other 7,575 wildfires that have cumulatively burned at least 1,667,855 acres of California in 2018 might have been prevented or at least lessened if the California Department of Fish & Wildlife had authorized a raft of beaver restoration projects proposed years earlier.
Much animal suffering might have been alleviated, meanwhile, had the California Department of Fish & Wildlife distributed better advice about what people could do to help wildlife fleeing through their property.
Wardens & families at risk
California Department of Fish & Wildlife officer Jake Olsen, his parents, grandparents and uncle, and his wife’s parents might not have lost five homes among them in Paradise, turning for emergency aid to GoFundMe.
An unidentified California Department of Fish & Wildlife game warden might not been involved in a November 15, 2018 confrontation with a 48-year-old fugitive in what remains of Paradise, after a high-speed chase, which ended in a burst of police gunfire that killed the fugitive, his pit bull, and a Sutter County Sheriff’s Office K9 dog.
Underlying the problematic California Department of Fish & Wildlife policy choices are teachings of traditional wildlife management, rooted in the notion that nominally “wild” animals are to be cultivated for human purposes, such as hunting and fishing, while being “managed” to avoid conflict with other human interests.
“Don’t leave water for wildlife”
Thus California Department of Fish & Wildlife spokesperson Peter Tira was quick to contradict a blizzard of recommendations amplified by social media that people near the fire zones should “put out buckets of water” for fleeing animals.
“This week’s tweets and posts recycle a campaign that hit social media during last winter’s fires,” reported Steve Scauzillo of the Southern California News Group. “Among those retweeting it this week were Matchbox Twenty [band] front man Rob Thomas, who has 429,000 followers.”
Responded Tira, “In a wildfire, you should let the animals take care of themselves. It is detrimental to put food and water out for them because then they become dependent on people. And that never ends well for the animals.”
Some animals need help
Wrote Scauzillo, “Animals who can flee quickly — such as birds, deer, bobcats, mountain lions and coyotes — scatter at the first sign of flames. They instinctively know how to survive and where to find a water source, Tira said. Snakes, wood rats and other burrowing animals will dig a hole and allow the fire to sweep over them, he said.”
All of which is more-or-less half true. Some animals know how to survive; some do not. Some need a bit of help in relocating from former habitat where they can no longer live to more favorable habitat elsewhere.
How to safely share water with wildlife
Most harmfully omitted from Tira’s advice was that wildlife fleeing a fire, like human firefighters, rapidly become dehydrated. Herbivorous animals who normally get much of their water intake from eating green plants and small carnivores who absorb moisture from their prey may need to find water elsewhere, temporarily.
There are ways to share water with wild animals after a fire that will not habituate them to human intervention. The watchwords are to provide the water randomly, in places disassociated from a human presence, and only temporarily, while animals are passing through. Leaving water in a bird bath, a wheelbarrow behind a shed, or in buckets beneath a fruit tree, as if a rainstorm interrupted a chore, will not bring animals up on porches, especially if the water is not replenished after consumption.
Beaver never allowed to recover
The bigger California Department of Fish & Wildlife policy issue, a probable factor in most California wildfires over the past 200 years, is that the once plentiful beaver population was trapped out between 1785 and 1841, and has never been allowed to recover to even a fraction of previous abundance.
The prolonged absence of beavers, meanwhile, has contributed to desertification in the dryer parts of California, exacerbating the effects of global warming and drought in forested regions.
“Beavers aren’t actually creating more water, but they are altering how it flows, which creates benefits through the ecosystem,” explained National Marine Fisheries Service Northwest Science Center beaver specialist Michael Pollock in 2015 to Alastair Bland of Water Deeply, a project of the online periodical News Deeply.
Elaborated Bland, “By gnawing down trees and building dams, beavers create small reservoirs. What follows, scientists say, is a series of trickle-down benefits. Water that might otherwise have raced downstream to the sea, tearing apart creek gullies and washing away fish, instead gets holed up for months behind the jumbles of twigs and branches. In this cool, calm water, fish — like juvenile salmon — thrive. Meanwhile, the water percolates slowly into the ground, recharging near-surface aquifers and keeping soils hydrated through the dry season.
“Entire streamside meadows,” [Sonoma County beaver restoration advocate Brock] Dolman says, may remain green all summer if beavers are at work nearby. Downstream of a beaver pond, some of the percolated water may eventually resurface, helping keep small streams flowing and fish alive,” and enabling shoreline trees such as willow and alder to soak up and store water.
Beaver help salmon, too
Dolman, co-founder of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center, told Bland that “This water-banking process could even, in theory, partially offset the worrying shrinkage of mountain snowpack, historically California’s most important water source,” the depletion of which has contributed to the severity of the Camp Fire, the Carr Fire, and the Mendocino Complex Fire, in particular.
“Dolman and his colleague Kate Lundquist would like reintroduction of beavers from other regions to begin now, as a measure for restoring salmon populations and building general drought resilience into the landscape,” Bland wrote.
But beaver restoration did not begin in 2015, or at any time that might have helped to prevent the catastrophic fires of 2018, Bland explained, because “Government biologists aren’t entirely sold on the virtues of beavers.”
“They won’t stay”
California Department of Fish & Wildlife fisheries biologist Kevin Shaffer acknowledged to Bland that “Beavers can have benefits for a watershed that is temporarily deprived of rainfall,” but argued that “beavers cannot cancel out the effects of long-term drought or climate change.
“As the drought gets worse, their ponds will dry up and the animals will just move somewhere else,” Shaffer told Bland. “They won’t stay because there is no more water.”
Yet the cooling effect of thousands of acres of beaver pond surface can help to stimulate precipitation, helping to break prolonged droughts and slowing the effects of climate change.
Yurok Tribe encouraging beaver
While the California Department of Fish and Wildlife classifies beavers as a “nuisance” species, continuing to prohibit beaver translocations and introductions to currently unoccupied beaver habitat, Bland spotlighted the work of Yurok Tribal Fisheries Program biologist Sarah Beesley to encourage “a small beaver population on the lower Klamath River system, where a small beaver population currently resides.”
Beasley told Bland that beaver ponds are the only habitat where salmon, especially endangered coho salmon, “have survived after four years of below-average rainfall.”
“Didn’t find ’em, so they were never here”
Bland wrote about a year after Bay Nature writer Alison Hawkes in June 2014 traced the California Department of Fish & Wildlife antipathy toward beaver restoration to flagrant historical errors by Joseph Grinnell (1877-1939) in a 1937 monograph entitled Fur Bearing Mammals of California, and by another biologist, Donald Tappe, in a 1942 follow-up.
Grinnell and Tappe believed, in gist, that because they found few beaver in California in the early to mid-20th century, other than some who were known to have recently been reintroduced, California must never have had many beaver––and that made beaver officially “non-native” anywhere that Grinnell and Tappe failed to recognize as beaver habitat.
Worth A Dam
Since 2007, Hawkes recounted, when beaver advocate Heidi Perryman “founded the beaver advocacy group, Worth a Dam, to save from extermination a beaver family that had moved into a highly-visible pond outside a Starbucks coffee shop in downtown Martinez,” a growing army of ecologists, biologists, archeologists, anthropologists, and historians have “compiled evidence,” Hawkes wrote, “from a wide range of digital and paper archives to show that beavers were once prevalent throughout most of California, including the entire San Francisco Bay Area.”
In particular, the Santa Clara Valley “was a gigantic wetland with tens of thousands of elk and huge flocks of waterfowl,” physician Rick Lanman told Hawkes, adding “That would have been true for the Marin coast as well.”
“Had to step in”
“In 2012,” continued Hawkes, “Perryman, Lanman and Brock published their first paper reviewing the evidence for beavers in the Sierra Nevadas.”
Explained Dolman, “We had to step in and address this assumption that beavers are not native, therefore we can consider them to be a danger, a nuisance, and then lethal management is justifiable.”
“The group cast a wide net,” narrated Hawkes, “searching for specimens in museums and archaeological sites, and examining historical fur-trapping records, historical newspaper accounts, geographic place names, and Native American tribal names for ‘beaver.’”
Beaver teeth and bones turned out to have been recovered from the Emeryville Shellmound, where Temescal Creek drains into San Francisco Bay after meandering through Oakland, from strata more than 1,500 years old. A 500-to-700-year-old rock painting from the Tule River Indian Reservation, located south of Fresno, west of Death Valley, and east of Bakersfield, appears to show a beaver. At least three coastal Native American tribes had words for beaver.
Father Francisco Palou, who helped to establish the first Spanish garrison at San Francisco, mentioned Native Americans wearing beaver furs on June 22, 1776. The Russian ship Kodiak collected a cargo of beaver and sea otter pelts from Bodega Bay in 1809.
“In one year, the Hudson’s Bay Company took 4,000 [beaver] skins from the shores of the San Francisco Bay,” summarized Hawkes.
From extirpation to limited reintroduction
The Russian American Fur Company established Fort Ross in northern Sonoma County in 1811 to maintain an armed presence that could inhibit British, American and Spanish competition for beaver and sea otter pelts. By 1841, however, beaver and sea otter were so severely depleted that the Russian American Fur Company sold the fort and the weapons in it to Swiss immigrant John Sutter (1803-1880), whose Sutter’s Fort was the beginning of the city of Sacramento.
Though beaver were nearly extirpated from California within less than 60 years, “California brought back some beavers to stem erosion from 1923-1950, bumping the statewide population from a dwindling 1,300 in 1942 to 20,000 by 1950,” Hawkes summarized of the findings by Perryman, Lanman, Brock et al. “The translocations happened in 58 counties and are thought to be responsible for the beavers that live here today.”
But the beavers translocated in 1923-1950 were, and remain, officially regarded as representatives of an introduced species, not a recovered native species.
To this day the California Department of Fish & Wildlife issues depredation permits allowing hundreds of beavers to be trapped and killed each year. Ignored is the potential use of those beavers to rebuild habitat––and water resources––in areas vulnerable to wildfire, which on maps interestingly parallel historical but now sparsely occupied beaver habitat.
“Lost more wetlands than any other state”
Wrote Amber Jamieson in “Why Beavers are Worth a Dam!” in 2017 on the Environmental Protection Information Center web site, “California has lost more wetlands than any other state. Agricultural and urban uses have altered our rivers by diking, levying, channeling, and canalizing waterways that were once extensively braided river systems.
“For example, in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Rivers,” draining the vicinity of the Camp Fire and Carr Fire, among others, “only 7% of historic floodplain area and 9% of stream length remains,” Jamieson said. “It’s time to rebuild those wetlands with a little help from our furry friends.”
“The animal who keeps water on the land”
Agrees Perryman, “People need to be thinking about the animal who keeps water on the land as a resource.”
What if Paradise had been situated on a ridge surrounded in part by beaver ponds, instead of wholly surrounded by drought-dried forest?
Had the California Department of Fish & Wildlife been thinking about fire prevention, instead of possible complaints about localized flooding, enough beavers might have occupied the habitat to have kept the Camp Fire from becoming a fast-moving firestorm.