Our Wikipedia beaver friend has been doing an amazing job researching beaver in the Sierras. Check out his recent updates. The photo is from moonshine Ink, where I first learned about the Kings Beach Beavers being killed because they “weren’t native”.
In 1916, Harold Bryant wrote in California Fish and Game, “The beaver of our mountain districts has been entirely exterminated and there are but a few hundred survivors to be found along the Sacramento, Colorado and San Joaquin Rivers.”. Later twentieth century naturalists (Grinnell, Tappe, etc.) questioned whether the California Golden beaver dwelt above 1,000 feet (300 m) of elevation in the Sierra, but evidence that they lived throughout the Sierras, including the high country, is mounting.
California Golden beaver taken from Snelling, California (elevation 256 ft/78 m and Waterford, California (elevation 51 ft/16 m) were stocked in 1940 at Mather Station (elevation 4,522 ft/1,378 m) west of Yosemite National Park and in 1944 at Fish Camp (elevation 5,062 ft/1,543 m) by the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG). These native “Central Valley” beaver have been building dams and rearing young successfully for 70 years at elevations in and near Yosemite at elevations higher than 5,000 feet (1,500 m).
There are two Beaver Creeks in California, one in Amador County that begins at 6,000 feet (1,800 m) and descends to 3,300 feet (1,000 m) where it joins the Bear River (a tributary of the Mokelumne River) and one that begins at 7,400 feet (2,300 m) and descends to 2,500 feet (800 m) where it joins the North Fork of the Stanislaus River. The second Beaver Creek in Tuolumne County has a Little Beaver Creek tributary that joins it 8 miles southwest of Liberty Hill, California and is now known as Crane Creek. There is also a Beaver Canyon in the southern Sierra at elevations above 2,000 feet at the confluence of Delonegha Creek with the Kern River. Because the Hudson’s Bay Company intentionally trapped the beaver in California to near extinction to prevent American settlement, there is a paucity of place names with the word “beaver” in the State. However, the Beaver place names in the Sierra could be named for the unrelated Mountain Beaver (Aplodontia rufa).
Why did Grinnell and Tappe write that there were no California Golden beaver over 1,000 feet in the Sierras? McIntyre hypothesized that beaver were trapped out of the Sierras early in the nineteenth century by trappers before records could be kept. Fur brigades employed by large commercial enterprises such as the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, the American Fur Company, and the Hudson’s Bay Company drew American exploration west to the Pacific. The Hudson’s Bay Company purposefully tried to extirpate beaver in California and Oregon to stifle American intrusion into these states and create a “fur desert”. Early records show that by the 1830’s, American fur brigades were in the Sierras. Fur trapper Stephen Hall Meek, wrote in his brief autobiography, “We got too far West, and finally started down the Mary’s, or Humboldt river for California, over a country entirely unknown to trappers. We discovered Truckee, Carson and Walker rivers, Donner lake and Walker’s pass, through which we went and pitched our camp for the winter on the shore of Tulare Lake, in December, 1833.” With few exceptions, these mountain men left few detailed records.
It may have been easier to trap out beaver in the Sierra Nevada than the beaver of the Delta. The beaver in the rivers of the Central Valley did not have to build dams since there was plenty of deep water to provide food and shelter, whereas mountain beaver have to impound streams to create deep water. The easiest way to trap beaver is to remove a few sticks from their dam, and set a trap to catch them when they come to make repairs. Thus, it may have been much easier to trap out dam-building beavers in the foothills and mountains than the non-dam building beavers near sea level in the California Delta. Grinnell states, “Beavers living in banks frequently leave little sign, and it is sometimes difficult to find places to set traps for them.” Grinnell also pointed out (after lamenting the lifting of the 1911-1925 moratorium on beaver trapping) that many parts of the Delta were inaccessible to trappers, “A few are left in sloughs with the “islands”, where trappers do not go.” Well before the end of the nineteenth century these factors could have left the mountains bereft of beaver and concentrated the surviving, albeit decimated Golden beaver populations in the Delta.