Because the beaver isn't just an animal; it's an ecosystem!

The Martinez Beavers

Category: Beavers and climate change


Well yesterday was fun, with little messages of encouragement for our 10th year  from folks around the globe. Now it’s time to get back to work. You know what they say, before anniversaries “Chop  wood, carry water“, and after anniversaries”Chop wood carry water“. Or something like that.

Here are two articles that deserve our attention. I’ll start with the grating one first. Why is it every article written about Peter Busher annoys me more than it interests me? Over the years I have come to think he basically knows his beavers, but he honestly doesn’t seem to like them very much.

The Secret Sex Lives of Beavers

The population boom can raise alarms in communities. Beavers are often viewed as a nuisance, causing millions of dollars in damage each year by chewing fences, trees, and decks. They build dams, which leads to flooding of homes, crops, and railroads.

But some behaviors can be beneficial, says Peter Busher, a College of General Studies professor of natural sciences and mathematics and chair of the division. Beaver dam building expands wetlands, whose functions include filtering toxins from water, supporting biodiversity, and mitigating floods.

Peter Busher poses with beaver captured for analysis

Busher has been studying beavers for four decades and was the first person to track the animals by tagging them with radio transmitters. He does his research in the Quabbin Reservation in Central Massachusetts, where 150 to 300 beavers con­stitute the nation’s longest-studied population, says Busher. Hoping to learn how humans can better coexist with beaver populations, he examines mating habits, birthrates, group structure, and how the animals migrate from one area to another. His findings could inform deci­sions about how communities respond to beaver activity and manage the animal’s population, both in Massachusetts and across the country.

Although beavers are among only 3 percent of mammals that are socially monogamous, raising their young exclusively with one partner, researchers do not know much about their pairing behavior. Do the parents also mate with other beavers and raise a mixed brood, or are they sexually exclusive? Busher wants to find out. He suspects that genetically monogamous beaver populations—those that tend to mate with one partner—increase more slowly and may stay in an area longer. If one of these populations were removed because of nuisance activity, he says, the area would likely be free of beavers for a while. But if the population were more promiscuous, new beavers could move into the area at any time; communities would then need to develop a long-term animal removal plan.

Promiscuous beavers? Honestly? Is that honestly what you think? Who thinks like that? Have you looked at every OTHER variable in their habitat that might differ between various beavers to rule out that food availability, or population, or stream gradient and prove that these it doesn’t influence which beaver are promiscuous and which aren’t? I’m sure, as a scientist, you would do ALL THAT before LEAPING to the assumption that DNA is responsible. I mean this is almost like race research.

How much trouble would you be in if you were posing that certain ethnicitys were more promiscuous?

The best research I have read on the topic described beavers as “opportunistic monogomists” – meaning if the right conditions happened to arise they would take advantage of them and mate outside the pair bond, and if they never arose it would be mostly okay with it and get on with the business of taking care of the family. I remember being amused when Rickipedia commented that this was pretty much the same for most male humans.

But Dr. Busher is trying to prove that it’s a beavers genes that make him roam. So that those prolific beavers we can kill more, and the faithful homebodies we can work with.

Are you sure you teach in Massachusetts? Because this theory is starting to sound positively republican to me!


The article that really interested me today comes from the irreplaceable George Monbiot and discusses the use of better language about ecology to capture public interest. Rusty of Napa sent it my way and I’m glad he did.

Forget ‘the environment’: we need new words to convey life’s wonders

If Moses had promised the Israelites a land flowing with mammary secretions and insect vomit, would they have followed him into Canaan? Though this means milk and honey, I doubt it would have inspired them.

So why do we use such language to describe the natural wonders of the world? There are examples everywhere, but I will illustrate the problem with a few from the UK. On land, places in which nature is protected are called “sites of special scientific interest”. At sea, they are labelled “no-take zones” or “reference areas”. Had you set out to estrange people from the living world, you could scarcely have done better.

The catastrophic failure by ecologists to listen to what cognitive linguists and social psychologists have been telling them has led to the worst framing of all: “natural capital”. This term informs us that nature is subordinate to the human economy, and loses its value when it cannot be measured by money. It leads almost inexorably to the claim made by the government agency Natural England: “The critical role of a properly functioning natural environment is delivering economic prosperity.”

I’m fully on board with the need to use language that enlivens and engages us rather than regulates our attention. But sometimes we are talking to politicians or biologists and need to convince them, and we think that kind of language carries more sway? Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe the only thing that matters to decision makers is what we celebrated yesterday: public pressure and votes. So engaging the public is more important than sounding objective.

This is my FAVORITE part.

On Sunday evening, I went to see the beavers that have begun to repopulate the river Otter in Devon. I joined the people quietly processing up the bank to their lodge. The friend I walked with commented: “It’s like a pilgrimage, isn’t it?” When we arrived at the beaver lodge, we found a crowd standing in total silence under the trees. When first a kingfisher appeared, then a beaver, you could read the enchantment and delight in every face.

Our awe of nature, and the silence we must observe when we watch wild animals, hints, I believe, at the origins of religion.

Something about that sentence feels very, very true for this woman who spent so many years in the company of beavers. (Not that we were silent the whole time.) Our beavers had train whistles and garbage trucks to get used to, and could handle a little talking. But there was definitely awed silence at times. Like when kits emerged or when an uncommon behavior was scene.

And it sure felt like the very best parts of church to me.

if we called protected areas “places of natural wonder”, we would not only speak to people’s love of nature, but also establish an aspiration that conveys what they ought to be. Let’s stop using the word environment, and use terms such as “living planet” and “natural world” instead, as they allow us to form a picture of what we are describing. Let’s abandon the term climate change and start saying “climate breakdown”. Instead of extinction, let’s adopt the word promoted by the lawyer Polly Higgins: ecocide.

We are blessed with a wealth of nature and a wealth of language. Let us bring them together and use one to defend the other.

Thank you, George for another beautiful column. I’m envious of the people who got to walk alongside you on the way to see those special Devon beavers. We very rarely feel reverence for what we consume or eliminate as inconvenient. But I have seen it time again on children’s faces watching our beavers.

Maybe its reverence, more than science, that protects nature.

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The salmon suit was ALL over the news yesterday. I was thrilled to see it even made the radio in Oregon. Yesterday CBD actually had a matching donor so all the money that came in from the news was doubled!  I didn’t even realize it the announcement was cleverly timed to match the beaver moon which was apparently strongest in the wee morning hours last night. Everything about this must have gotten wildlife services attention. Lets see where this goes!

More treats to follow, because this wonderful letter by Connie Poten of Missoula Montana just ran yesterday in the Independent Record. Connie is the secretary of Footloose Montana, and writes a powerful letter. It has a few things that need tweaking but my goodness it even has a NEW FACT THAT I LOVE. And that so rarely happens anymore.

Let beavers work to prevent fires

Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service, called beavers this term is blocked. [Editors note: the name she writes he called them is very cool but not as yet unconfirmed by the forest service or Pinchot scholars so for now consider it cloaked.] Tens of millions of beavers created vast wetlands in North America, nourishing Native Americans, fish, wildlife, forests and meadows with life-giving water. Then came the European fur trappers, and in less than 50 years, Montana had no more beavers at all. Eastern Montana dried up as a result. Finally, beavers were reintroduced to recharge aquifers gone dry and save water from draining away.

Starting July 7 with the Crow Rock fire near Miles City, Montana turned into an inferno. The Lodgepole Complex fire burned 400 square miles. Montana became the epicenter of drought — the hottest and driest summer on record  —and got smothered in smoke. By Sept. 11, more than 1 million acres had burned. Animals burned alive and died from smoke inhalation; a coyote was seen with a leg burned off. Seeley Lake was plunged into toxic darkness for six weeks. Montana’s tourism industry shut down in much of the state. Hundreds were evacuated and homes burned. Two firefighters died.

We now face the cost of fighting these fires. Farmers lost $400 million in crops, ranchers were hit hard and the tate budget is spiraling downward. It doesn’t have to be this bad. We could make a small change that would help contain fires. We could eliminate recreational trapping of beavers.

Beavers create ecosystems. They build dams that hold ponds and restore streams, wetlands and floodplains. They turn hardpan into rich soil. They supply water for municipalities, irrigation and wildlife. Seasonal streams flow year-round and groundwater is stored, thanks to beavers. Beaver wetlands act as firewalls, mitigating forest fires. Firefighters use water from the ponds. When beavers gnaw down cottonwood trees, they spur more growth — cottonwoods thrive on disturbance.

As warming temperatures threaten cold-water fish like trout and coho salmon, the cold water at the bottom of beaver ponds makes a perfect habitat for juvenile fish. Beaver ponds nurture grasses, trees and shrubs, creating nesting sites and food for songbirds, forage for game animals and most species. Beaver ponds improve water quality too, by reducing sediments and pollutants.

In a time of accelerating climate change, drought and fire, we need beavers more than ever. They work for free and restore our precious water. What are we waiting for? End recreational beaver trapping now. Let our beavers go to work.

Isn’t that an AWESOME letter? Connie deserves all our praise. She even talked about Skip Lisle and beaver deceivers! No wonder Footloose Montana is so successful since even its secretary can deliver a powerful lesson with a pen. I love the quote about beavers being “water factories”. You know I’ll be tucking that away to share sometime in the future!

Una familia de castores ‘monta’ su casa en la cuenca del Ebr

Another delight was sent by Duncan Haley of Norway yesterday but the beaver world was TOO busy to share. This is an article about beavers in Spain that were supposedly introduced without permission. (Duncan swears the accusation is legit and because he has inside information so I trust him.) The article is in Spanish but use google translate if you want to read some really amusing beaver misunderstandings! The farmer has been watching the beaver activity using a night cam. I was especially interested in the interaction between the beaver and this Genet so I clipped that short interchange. It is easily the likely the most delightful beaver moment I will ever post here. I especially love the moment when the Genet waits to see if the beaver is following. Enjoy.

Don’t you think they play that every night? If you, like me, find yourself suddenly wondering what a Genet is, Duncan explained “Like a cross between a marten and a cat with spots like a leopard and a long ring tail
Wow. Doesn’t that sound amazing? Here’s one in the color.

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Nobody told me there’d be days like this in beaverland. Wow. The past two days have been exploding with good beaver news but this takes the veritable cake. Guess who the center for biological diversity is suing now? And for WHAT?

Capture

Lawsuit Aims to Protect Salmon Harmed by Government Beaver-killing in Oregon

PORTLAND, Ore.— Two environmental organizations today filed a formal notice of intent to sue a federal program that kills hundreds of beavers a year in Oregon. The lawsuit aims to hold the program, Wildlife Services, accountable for killing beavers because the animals are essential to protecting threatened and endangered fish like salmon and steelhead.

Wildlife Services, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, kills the beavers with traps, snares and firearms. Beavers are Oregon’s official state animal.

Numerous studies show that beavers benefit endangered salmon and steelhead by creating ponds that provide fish with natural cover and food. Despite these well-established ecological benefits, Wildlife Services killed more than 400 beavers in Oregon in 2016. The extermination agency even killed beavers in counties where endangered aquatic wildlife rely on beaver ponds for survival.

“Killing beavers in Oregon just one year after federal fish experts announced that beavers are essential to providing high-quality habitat for salmon is just perverse,” said Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates. “If this state is committed to saving salmon, we have to be equally committed to preserving the remaining fraction of beavers that historically lived in Oregon.”

NO FOOLIN’. I heard nothing of this in the pipes and everyone I’ve talked to is slapping their foreheads. That we weren’t warned isn’t a huge surprise because CBD tends to forage on their own and act like the only team on the field. For this particular lawsuit they’ve teamed up with the Northwest Environmental Advocates. Their letter of intent clearly lays out the legal basis for the suit, explaining that when an animal is listed on the Endangered Species Act as salmon and steelhead are, and ANY federal agency is going to do something that affects their habitat they are required to mitigate the action and warn those involved. And since there are decades of evidence that trapping beavers threatens salmonids they have failed in this responsibility for years and years. Read for yourself.

When a species has been listed or critical habitat designated under the ESA, all federal agencies—including APHIS-Wildlife Services—must ensure in consultation with the Services that their programs and activities are in compliance with the ESA. 16 U.S.C. § 1536(a)(2). Specifically, section 7(a)(2) of the ESA mandates that all federal agencies “insure that any action authorized, funded, or carried out by such agency . . . is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered species or threatened species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of [critical] habitat of such species.”
Now that seems pretty clear cut, doesn’t it? I’m sure that WS has lots of ways to justify their actions but I can imagine some smart judge ruling that the evidence shows that removing beaver is a threat to salmon and they’re required to engage in mitigation when they do so. Like build BDAs or pay a fine. Can’t you?
The entire document is well prepared with a few jarring exceptions. It has the requisite shocking photos of dead beavers in traps or piled on trucks (which won’t do much in court), and isn’t careful about language enough for my tastes. (That paragraph alone spells “ensure” two ways without explanation) but its a HUGE shot across the bow, and every one from Michael Pollock to Ann Riley to Michael Callahan wrote me VERY interested in this yesterday. The reference section is thorough, indeed.
Here is their list of endangered species that beaver removal affects.
  1. Salmon, Chinook Snake River spring/summer-run ESUOncorhynchus Salmotshawytscha
  2. Salmon, Chinook Upper Willamette River ESU Oncorhynchus Salmotshawytscha
  3. Steelhead Upper Willamette River DPS Oncorhynchus Salmomykiss
  4. Salmon, coho Oregon Coast ESU Oncorhynchus Salmo kisutch
  5. Steelhead Middle Columbia River DPS Oncorhynchus Salmomykiss
  6. Sucker, Warner Catostomus warnerensis
  7. Trout, bull Salvelinus confluentus
  8. Trout, Lahontan cutthroat Oncorhynchus clarkii henshawi
  9. Frog, Oregon spotted Rana pretiosa

I can see California and Washington watching eagerly to see how this plays out, and follow suit down the line. I know APHIS is the favorite target for CBD, but in our state CDFG allows the killing of far more beavers than are taken by APHIS alone. Is there any way that this suit could affect the number of depredation permits issued to private landowners or cities because of threat to salmon? Or Red legged frogs? Or migratory birds? Or WATER?

You can see the list grow.

And if that isn’t exciting enough for you, how about beaver benefits on Utah Public Radio? Robert Edgel is working with the Wetlands Initiative to install BDAs until the real things comes along.

Beavers are what biologists call an “ecosystem engineer.” That means that they change the environment they live in, and help maintain critical habitat for other species. Beaver dams raise the water level of a stream which causes the stream to flood during spring runoff. The flooding allows grasses and forbs to grow and the much needed insect population to thrive.
Oh and I saw this yesterday on FB and wanted to share. Suzi Eszterhas, the wildlife photographer that filmed our beavers a few years back and is a friend of the festival, is currently in Africa, facing brand new hazards on her current assignment. This time it’s a opportunistic meerkat who has decided to use her as a lookout.
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Another savory dish Rob Rich sent my way was this essay by author Ginny Battson. It is a splendid, thoughtful and thought-provoking read perfectly designed for a sunday afternoon by the seaside or a cup of coffee and the first snow in your uncle’s cabin. Which means it deserves much broader thinking than I can summon, but the beaver parts are really, really good so I’m going to share them.

Beavers are Fluminists

I learn from rivers, as do the beavers. I spend time in and around them, observing and sensing. Two and a half thousand years ago, the ancient philosopher Heraclitus also wrote on the profound things he learned from rivers. In an age before sHERCLITUScience, he looked for guiding principles in nature. What he found in rivers was a permanence in a reality of apparent change. All is flux, a matrix of matter and movement. The river is an analogy for an elemental cosmos, yet materially effervescent. Rivers are also life systems ~ complex and dynamic.

beaver swimmingBeavers, the river keepers, have evolved to be more than the sum of themselves. Beavers live in the life-flow, interrupt and send it in multiple directions. Known to ecologists as ‘keystone,’ First Nationers instead call them ‘sacred centres’ of the land. For they are whirling hubs of life-diffluence and life-confluence, integral to the flow just as mind cannot be separated from body. They are dam and bridge builders, storing water at times of plenty for times of drought. They sequester carbon kit chewing over beautiful waterby trapping it in fluvial muds that eventually become rich soils. They are coppicers; the trees they fell to feed upon and rear their young will regenerate, beaver-cuts catalysing a diversity of plant and animal life. They are also wildlife protectors ~ during winter, woody debris left trapped behind dams are buried beneath deep snow, and provide shelter for a host of smaller mammals and reptiles during the bitter cold. And then, when the northern hemisphere tips nearer to the Sun, melt water forms reservoirs and a rising water table, creating habitat for amphibians and a plethora of bird species, including waterfowl ~ wood duck and heron, migratory waders and passerines. New lentic deeps amongst woody debris provide fish fry safe passage to grow to adulthood. Majestic osprey take the adults. In lotic flows downstream, clouds of black fly larvae lay submerged, attached toNorth American Beaver Castor canadensis Martinez, CA substrate with silk, to emerge in spring and breed, then feed the bats that hunt on the wing above the beaver-cuts. The dams may eventually blow-out by flood, and the beavers will find new territory. Upstream, moose rear youngon regenerating meadow grasses years after dams are abandoned. This really is rich habitat; the smell of river, wood and beaver is intoxicating.

If beavers could speak human, they may also say: Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not.

(Heraclitus Homericus B49a)

Ginny introduces the word Fluminism to explain the interconnected dynamics of the universe flowing forwards, connecting and enriching  and says it’s what beavers do best. She even goes so far as to call it a kind of love, or the doing and caring parts of loving. Her essay is filled with the richest imagery and most fluid prose. You should really tuck away the link and read it sometime when you have time to reflect. For now I will just say that she GETS beavers. I remember Skip Lisle similarly said the principal of beavers is dynamism, meaning change. They change things, things change them, the things that are changed by them change other things. Maybe after 10 years of watching beavers I can see how they changed me, how my life has rearranged itself because of their work.

Back to the Maine woods, and it’s getting late. I’m a little bit edgy because the light is falling. As I hurry back with my baby over the bridge towards Gilbert, we hear the slap of a scaly, flat tail hitting the water ~ splash. I stop and turn us around to follow the sound. My eyes adjust to the watery scene. And there is the beaver, Fluminist, swimming, with a wet, brown head visible for a moment and shiny eyes, before diving beneath the inky reflections of a darkening sky. She’s warning others we are here. Though we’d never harm her, others might. I feel at peace knowing she is here, knowing she has a rich intrinsically valuable life, full of love for this world in the river she understands so intimately. I point her out to my baby who instinctively feels both the joy and excitement. Formative moments, for sure. There is so much yet to learn from Ahmik, Fluminist, and I walk us home full of awe and gratitude.

North American Beaver Castor canadensis Martinez, CA
North American Beaver
Castor canadensis
Martinez, CA

 

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Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 5.45.35 AMYou’ll be happy to know that the beavers in Hope Valley on the west fork of the carson river are doing just fine. We counted 7 dams yesterday in the cool clear flat water edged by leafless aspen and tamarack. It looks like nobody is messing with their idyllic lifestyle in the curvy shallows of the carson and we were happy about that!  I’m sure they’re hard at work in these last warm autumn days to stock up that food cache for the winter. Good luck!

It is also very good news for us that one of our best beaver buddies in the UK is very tech savvy and made sure the complete autumn watch episode on the Cornish beavers was online and shareable. I’m not thanking them by name because the BBC frowns on this sort of thing! This is a rare treat so even if you never ever watch any video I post WATCH THIS! Trust me.

Wasn’t that amazing? They are being so smart about this, with the baseline study and the careful followup! Hurray for the farmer who had the sense to step into the forefront of this issue and allow his land to be reborn.

You never know where unexpected beaver friends will come from next. Here’s a fine defense of Heron pond from the Cabinet Press in New Hampshire! The author, Suzanne Fournier, is not at all happy with the actions of the conservation commission in charge.

Anti-conservation move must be opposed

The Milford Conservation Commission voted on Oct. 12 to lower Heron Pond by a foot! It’s quite an arbitrary decision, motivated not by what’s in the best interest of the pond and the threatened and endangered wildlife it sustains, but by vague expressions from the Public Works Director that the water is high enough already.

In summer 2014, Director Riendeau’s crew destructively lowered Heron Pond by four feet, absent a real emergency. The beavers eventually repaired the breached dam.

In fall 2014, along the Rail Trail, the CC had beaver pipes installed so low down that three ponds were drained of much of their water, one of them the lovely place called Dickerman’s Pond.

The CC members should be educating themselves more about the value and functions of a healthy wetland like Heron Pond that actually plays a major role in flood prevention.

They would also learn that drawing down Heron Pond with its Blanding’s and spotted turtles during the fall violates the directives in the N.H. Wildlife Action Plan that says turtles would likely die.

This anti-conservation move on the part of the CC must be opposed by all who care about wetlands and wildlife.

Nicely put! I honestly think this is a historic first for beaver reporting. Never before have I seen any paper or person complain about a flow device installed TOO LOW so that too much water drains away. Even in Martinez we didn’t complain about that because we were too grateful the pond and the beavers got to stay at all! Keep the pressure on, Suzanne. We think you’re doing ponds a great service!

 

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Ten Years

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Restoration

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Beaver in CA

The meeting that started it all