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Beavers! The key to a better North Bay environment

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PHOTOS COURTESY OF RUSTY COHN
  • Photos courtesy of Rusty Cohn

Bill Ostrander was showing his brother-in-law around his Kenwood vineyard one summer day last year when the tour turned totally horror-show, from the perspective of a grape grower: suddenly, they came upon a patch of grapevines with wilted leaves, desiccated grapes and trunks cut in two. Ostrander had suspicions about who the culprit might be.

Ostrander's vines, planted as Syrah in 1997, had already suffered a severe pruning once before, when they were cut in half and re-grafted onto another variety, "because Syrah wasn't possible to sell," the Kenwood resident says. The vineyard is just two-and-three-quarters acres, but it provides him a little income. And his new Malbec vines had attracted some unwanted customers: beavers.

When grape growers in Sonoma and Napa wine country encounter such a problem with beavers, as rare as that is, they are legally entitled to apply for a permit to have that animal trapped and killed. Yet Ostrander hesitated. He set up a digital "critter cam" to catch the culprit in the act, tried out various methods of fencing them out of the vineyard and documented his efforts in a light-hearted email series to friends and family that he called "Wet Caddyshack." Clearly, there was something about this determined rodent that was different than, say, a common pocket gopher, which Ostrander says he would be happy to get rid of.

There's something different about the beaver, indeed, as Ostrander learned from his interaction with a local cadre of "beaver believers" who are on a mission to help property owners live with the beaver, encourage their habitat and ultimately change the game plan for what they say is a woefully underappreciated keystone species in the state of California.

The first step is getting past California's "beaver blind spot," as the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center's Brock Dolman puts it. Dolman is co-director, with Kate Lundquist, of OAEC's WATER Institute (Watershed Advocacy, Training, Education and Research), established in 2004 to study and promote watershed issues. The award-winning duo's "Bring Back the Beaver" campaign, started in 2009, went back on the road in the North Bay last month with a talk in connection with a screening of the environmental documentary Dirt Rich in Novato; appearances continue through June in Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties.

"A lot of people just don't know that we have beaver in California," says Lundquist, who says that their current presentation is an update on a 2015 talk they gave in Sonoma to help answer the question: "That's an East Coast thing, right?"

Despite the Canadian-sounding name, charismatic Castor canadensis is native to all of North America, and is a close relative to the Eurasian beaver, Castor fiber, which Europeans exploited to near extinction for its castor oil and the fine hat-making properties of its dense fur. The discovery of beaver and other hapless, furry critters in the New World inspired a "Fur Rush" long before the Gold Rush. Turns out, according to Lundquist, when the Russians founded Fort Ross in 1812, it was actually kind of late in the game—and trappers had been exploiting the West Coast for decades before the legendary "mountain men" trappers descended on the Golden State from overland to clean up the rest.

Although a historical account from General Mariano Vallejo found the Laguna de Santa Rosa "teeming with beaver" in 1833, by 1911 California had about 1,000 beavers left before legislators passed a law briefly protecting the aquatic rodents. Following a quarter-century-long campaign to reintroduce beaver to erosion-threatened habitat (the highlight of the "Bring Back the Beaver" show is the parachuting "beaver bomb" developed during the time), they were determined non-native and invasive for decades thereafter.

Today in California, trapping beaver is permitted in 42 of 58 counties, and there is no bag limit to the number taken. While Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties are excluded, beaver are considered a nuisance species everywhere, meaning that farmers, landowners and government agencies that encounter beaver problems may apply for depredation permits to have them removed.

And the only option is lethal removal, as longtime Napa grape grower Andrea "Buck" Bartolucci found when he asked the California Department of Fish and Wildlife about his beaver problem in 2013. One day while driving down the half-mile driveway of his 160-acre Madonna Estate Vineyard in the Carneros, Bartolucci noticed a similar problem to Ostrander's: a string of grapevines cut down at the trunk. It was so methodically done that he initially wondered if an employee had become disgruntled, but he found it was beavers from nearby Huichica Creek. "They knocked down a couple of trees and had a party with the grapevines," Bartolucci says.

Fish and Wildlife recommended contracting the county trapper, and at the time, Bartolucci was impressed with the 60-pound creatures that were trapped. "They're fierce!" Bartolucci says. "It's not like Bucky Beaver." Yet Bartolucci says the environment is important to him, having farmed his vineyard certified organically since 1991, and now laments that it was the only option that was given to him at the time. "I'm not the kind of guy who wants to do in an innocent animal," he says, "and if there was an alternative, I'd certainly look into that."

The sticking point is that Fish & Wildlife abides by a "shall issue" code when it comes to beavers. That is, if a landowner can verify property damage from beaver, the responding officer shall issue a depredation permit. Unlike some other Western states, California does not allow live trapping and relocation of beaver, or many other animals.

Those permits numbered some 3,300 in 2016, according to beaver advocate Heidi Perryman. Though California does not require records of depredations completed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services does for its separate permits; it counted 836 in 2016. According to the local office for Sonoma and Napa counties, one permit was issued for beaver in 2018, but it was not verified that any were actually taken under that permit.

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