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

The Martinez Beavers

Category: Beavers and Fire Prevention

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.

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.

Well, the wine country fires are nearly as deadly as the Oakland Hills fires now, and have taken more homes and plenty more acreage. The entire town of Calistoga was evacuated last night and the two massive sidewalls of fire around Napa are probably going to meet up today, which is terrible news for our friends and the Tulocay beavers. To top it all off Cal-fire just announced a red flag warning for much of the entire state, which means the whole thing will get worse before it gets  better.

(I was vaguely remembering this morning how much people said they hated 2016, but they are going to remember it with fondness after this horrible year.)

DSC_7858The good news is that we heard from Rusty Cohn of Napa yesterday who is not missing but on vacation. We also heard from Susan Kirks of PLAN who said that Petaluma is terrified but holding steady. And our plucky little Martinez beavers have decided to forge ahead and rebuild one of the dams that were recently ripped out. Since there is fresh mud on the smallest dam, we can assume they must have repaired the larger too, even though we can’t see it. So we will take heart from their resilient spirits and fiddle on while Rome burns.

How one man tricked beavers and saved them — and roads — in the process

Knee-deep in muddy water, Skip Lisle wrestled with a metal fence, a key component of his invention, the Beaver Deceiver. On the morning of Sept. 29, deep in the woods of northeast Maine, Lisle pieced together the simple, durable device that he designed with one goal: trick the beavers, and in doing so, save the beavers.

CaptureConstructed on the upstream end of a road culvert, the device would prevent beavers from damming up the culvert and flooding the gravel road, something that is extremely common problem throughout the state.

“You hear about beavers being industrious and loving to work,” Lisle said. “That’s a myth. They’ll always choose the easiest damming site.”

Where humans see a gravel road with a culvert in it, beavers see a dirt dam with a tiny hole in it. As water rushes through the culvert, it calls to these natural builders, and their instinct is to “repair the dam,” block the culvert with sticks and mud so the area will flood, expanding their habitat. It’s what beavers do … unless you can somehow stop them.

That’s where the Beaver Deceiver comes in.

Maine is really a hotspot of beaver IQ at the moment. In the past two years I’ve covered stories as progressive as I’ve ever seen, and several that are equally backward – with hunting and trapping listed  as the only solution.  There is clearly some controversy going on there. But I’m hopeful with articles like these that beaver attitudes are moving in a good direction.

Growing up in rural Vermont in the 1970s, Lisle witnessed how beavers can rapidly change a landscape to benefit many other species of wildlife. On his family’s land, beavers constructed a dam across a waterway, creating a pond that expanded over the years, attracting a wide variety of animals to his backyard.

“There were so many animals using it, different species, and that stuck with me my whole life,” Lisle said.

When Lisle was bout 15 years old, the local beavers started damming up a culvert on a town road that ran through his family’s land. He realized that he needed to stop them or the road would soon be flooded. If someone else took action, the beavers would likely be killed. So he took charge and got creative.

truck“I actually stole some of my father’s old garden fence,” Lisle said, “and just built a crude fence in the culvert. And that’s when it all began.”

Constructing a fence around a culvert is the first step in building what Lisle would later call a Beaver Deceiver. But that invention was years in the making.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in geography from Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, Lisle worked for ten years in construction, mainly doing painting and carpentry work. He then returned to school to earn a master’s degree in wildlife management from University of Maine in Orono. His thesis was on beavers, and more specifically, the wetland habitats they create.

“[Wildlife management] has always been my calling,” Lisle said. “I just didn’t answer it at first.”

Ahhh Skip! What a great article about a great man with a vision. Thanks for giving Maine such a lovely view of  how and why to do this. And thanks for being our hero when we needed it. If folks need proof that it works, give us a call. Martinez was happy to function as a ‘test case’.

Now there are two more fantastic beaver stories on my waiting list I’m eager to get to. Assuming I’m not too stricken by fire-grief tomorrow to do my job, tune in for a great story of saving urban beavers in Port Moody BC.

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about this new text book, which was slated for release in August of this year. Dr. Carol Johnston is the professor from South Dakota who recently used those historic maps from Morgan to show that beavers build in the same areas for 150 years. The book looks very interesting. Minnesota Ag just reviewed their copy but where is mine?

Beavers Shape Northern Minnesota Ecosystem.

Beavers have probably been more influential than humans in altering the Kabetogama Peninsula ecosystem in northern Minnesota, writes South Dakota State University Professor Carol Johnston. She examined how beavers have impacted the peninsula which is home to Voyageurs National Park near International Falls, Minn., in her newly released book, “Beavers: Boreal Ecosystem Engineers.”

“This book is about a place and the science of how beavers shaped it,” said Johnston, who has been conducting research on beavers for 30 years. She wrote eight of the book’s 10 chapters based on her National Science Foundation-funded beaver research.

The text book is listed as a pricey 137.00 at Amazon, but shows the following drool-worthy pages of contents. It takes a second to load but trust me it’s worth it.  There isn’t a single chapter I’m not eager to read.  It’s maddening to think of all the text books I shelled out major cash for and never really read more than I needed to, (or frankly, even that) and this one that is sooo delightful-looking now that I’m not a student!


Eek! Showtime is here! Yesterday was a dizzying combination of details, confirmations, a last minute cancellation, and several favors I never expected. I was braced for tragedy so when the sound guy called at 11 I practically answered the phone with “Is it bad news?”. Nope, he assured me, just wanted to be sure of everything and would see me in the morning. The John Muir Histori site was very helpful in loaning us some tents and Jon had a fairly easy time loading up the U-haul, although I did wake him up at 1 and wonder where the tattoos were.

Pity the author Ben Goldfarb, who called me last night from the Quality Inn in Martinez to say he’d be there tomorrow morning to help set up. He cleverly noted they were having “quality time at the quality inn“, but I wasn’t fooled,  that place is so much of a dive even my parents couldn’t stand it and moved out in the middle of the night.  Good luck, Ben and Elise!

We had a nice mention in Joan Morris’ column yesterday as a final blessing. I’m sure that the last act of Gary Bogue before he retired was to tell her “be nice to those beaver people.” And she always is. Thanks Joan!

Beaver celebration

A decade ago, a family of beavers in Martinez were about to be evicted from their home on Alhambra Creek because their dam had caused flooding in the downtown area. Then a group of people stood up for the beavers and found a solution that prevented the flooding and allowed the beavers to live in peace.

Although the beavers eventually died or left the area, their presence encouraged other aquatic creatures to return the creek. The Martinez beavers will be celebrated 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Marina Vista and Alhambra Avenue in Martinez.

But there is one piece of good news that should make anyone’s day even if they are planning a Festival on the most weirdly humid day in Martinez history. And it’s this letter to the editor from Arizona of all places. I might have expected it from Oregon or Utah, but seeing it in the grand canyon state surprised  me. Mark my words, someday every state will write this letter.

The Brian Head Fire has been stopped and restoration has started.

To me, nothing could be better to help with restoration than the beaver. He works for free to help stop soil erosion, stop the flooding and save the fish. Their dams hold the water on the mountain to make it green, to water the aspen trees. They will not burn like the pines do. Our long-term goals in fire management should include the beaver.

If we have rules against this, they should be changed! No one can help save our land better than they can. I believe people should talk about this, and people like Jackie Grant and Brendan Waterman (The Spectrum & Daily News, 7-17-17) should be leading the way.

We the people should not let our tax dollars be used to kill them. We should spend our tax money to help them come back, to relocate them, put overflows on their dams and help them any way we can.

Eric Jensen Fredonia, Arizona

Eric! What a fantastic letter! You are absolutely right that having more water savers would alter the fire risk. And pointing out that people should be talking about this and changing the rules to make it happen. Thank you for your excellent letter. I think I better add a new classification of “Beavers and fire prevention” because we had another great article on this a while ago from Idaho after their huge fires. Too bad Fredonia is so far away because otherwise I’d invite you to the beaver festival!

Eek! BEAVER FESTIVAL! Come for the music! Come for the children! Come for the auction! Come for the wildlife! But just come!