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How beavers became North America’s best firefighter

Ben Goldfarb, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The American West is ablaze with fires fueled by climate change and a century of misguided fire suppression. In California, wildfire has blackened more than three million acres; in Oregon, a once-in-a-generation crisis has forced half a million people to flee their homes. All the while, one of our most valuable firefighting allies has remained overlooked: The beaver.

A new study concludes that, by building dams, forming ponds, and digging canals, beavers irrigate vast stream corridors and create fireproof refuges in which plants and animals can shelter. In some cases, the rodents’ engineering can even stop fire in its tracks.

“It doesn’t matter if there’s a wildfire right next door,” says study leader Emily Fairfax, an ecohydrologist at California State University Channel Islands. “Beaver-dammed areas are green and happy and healthy-looking.”

For decades, scientists have recognized that the North American beaver, Castor canadensis, provides a litany of ecological benefits throughout its range from northern Mexico to Alaska. Beaver ponds and wetlands have been shown to filter out water pollution, support salmon, sequester carbon, and attenuate floods. Researchers have long suspected that these paddle-tailed architects offer yet another crucial service: slowing the spread of wildfire.

This beaver-dammed wetland in Baugh Creek, Idaho, is a so-called “emerald refuge” that can serve as a firebreak and refuge for other species during wildfires. Source: Joe Wheaton, Utah State University.

“It’s really not complicated: water doesn’t burn,” says Joe Wheaton, a geomorphologist at Utah State University. After the Sharps Fire charred 65,000 acres in Idaho in 2018, for instance, Wheaton stumbled upon a lush pocket of green glistening within the burn zone—a beaver wetland that had withstood the flames. Yet no scientist had ever rigorously studied the phenomenon.

Read more at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/09/beavers-firefighters-wildfires-california-oregon/

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Sonoma County beavers are watershed heroes

Melanie Parker, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Beaver Blitz: On Oct. 8, observers will join teams throughout the county in the first ever “Beaver Blitz.” Register at inaturalist.org/projects/sonoma-county-beaver-blitz.  To learn more about beavers, visit oaec.org/publications/beaver-in-california.

In this, the driest part of the year in Sonoma County, you might take a minute to consider creatures that are increasingly appreciated as watershed heroes — the beavers.

Beavers (Castor canadensis) are aquatic mammals that live in streams and lakes and are well known for building dams and lodges, but they have long been misunderstood, ignored or maligned.

Today, however, scientists and land managers recognize them as a “keystone” species, protecting habitat for many other plants and animals, and providing water security for people.

Have you ever seen a beaver? Don’t mistake them for otters. Beavers are actually members of the rodent family.

 They don’t eat fish, and they have big, flat tails. They are herbivores and nibble on all sorts of stream-side vegetation, including willows, cottonwoods and grasses. They are usually shy, and because predators like coyotes and mountain lions hunt them, they construct wood and mud lodges or bank burrows that they access through underwater entrances.

Beavers live in family groups or colonies led by the breeding male and female, and are joined by the juveniles from previous litters who help watch over the kits of the year. At 3, juveniles leave home in search of new territory, sometimes as far away as 30 miles.

Beavers once numbered in the millions all across North America. Because they were prized for their fur, they were largely killed off in the 1700s and 1800s. In California, they were exploited first by the maritime Russian-American fur traders who navigated up and down the coast, and later by fur trapping Mountain Men who came overland from the East.

Read more at: Nature: Sonoma County beavers are watershed heroes