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This business as usual for beavers started to change after a pair of them wandered into Alhambra Creek in the middle of the city of Martinez in 2006. They built a dam and had yearlings, called kits, but the city's application for a permit to make them go away did not sit well with locals who could see the kits playing as they drank their coffee. Resident Heidi Perryman formed the beaver advocacy group Worth a Dam, which holds its 11th annual Beaver Festival on June 30 in downtown Martinez.
A few years later, a somewhat less celebrated pair of beavers set up house on Tulocay Creek, which passes under Napa's Soscol Avenue at the Hawthorn Suites hotel. An otherwise unimpressive urban drainage, this section of Tulocay sprang to life after the beavers set up a serviceable little barrier of sticks and mud: numerous species of birds, amphibians and mammals like otter and mink have been observed by wildlife watchers keeping an eye on the pond, including wildlife photographer Rusty Cohn, who has photographed and made videos of beavers swimming, munching on cattails and even falling asleep in mid-munch while trying to rebuild the dam after the rains of 2017.
Luckily for the beavers, advocates have convinced the hotel to wrap the trees on their landscaped grounds with wire to deter the animals from gnawing on them, and a new hotel project now under development on the other side of the creek is not now affecting the beavers, who are rebuilding their dam after the higher water flows of last winter.
The Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, however, is responsible for the bank of the stream, not the proposed Cambria Hotel, under development by Southern California–based Stratus Development Partners. Lundquist praises the Napa agency as pro-beaver, saying, "I'm grateful that there are flood-control agencies that recognize the beavers, and I encourage all of our flood agencies to learn from the Napa district, because they're doing a great job."
With the OAEC as consultants, the county plans to lower the water level of the beaver pond temporarily, to facilitate shoring up the bank, thus avoiding a number of potential pitfalls, according to Kevin Swift, who's contracted to do the pond-leveling work.
Swift is the proprietor of Swift Water Design, a one-man, "non-lethal beaver-management" startup that, Swift says, would require 10 of him if even a fraction of the agencies and individuals currently trying to manage their beaver problems would call him. Swift assesses problems and implements solutions that, while relatively simple, require a different way of thinking about beavers. He speaks eloquently, if colorfully, about the rodents' role in the environment.
"They're ignored, underappreciated, reviled and mismanaged in equal measure," says Swift, who emphasizes that beavers, for all their engineering abilities, are not intellectual powerhouses. "It's got a brain the size of an acorn. If you can't work it out with them, could be you're the problem."
Currently, Swift is working with a property manager in Glen Ellen who's got a beaver that's blocking a spillway in an old stock pond located near a confluence of streams. "It looks like, way back when, a rancher went and put in a dam," he says, "just where a beaver would, really." It's not in use, but the property owner can't risk being responsible for a failure of the old dam, either. The solution lies in understanding the beaver's simple needs.
A beaver's "programming set is very small," says Swift, "but profound in its implications. It's like, if you hear running water, and you feel like you're going to get eaten, make the running water stop making that noise. As soon as it stops making that noise, punch a hole in a creek bed somewhere and make more of yourself. And you're good."
Beavers build dams mainly to stay safe from predators, such as coyotes. Secondarily, the flooded area around the dam encourages felled riparian tree species, like willow, to sprout back and create more beaver food. "I mean," says Swift, "it's just this tiny, tiny little sliver of code, out of which falls an entire ecosystem."
Swift makes no claims to sentimental concern for the animals, joking, "If you want to shoot a beaver in the head and make a hat, I'm OK with that." More seriously, he points to the waste of potential environmental services the current policy promotes.
"It seems to me that all the laws are backwards," he says. "You don't need a permit to destroy a beaver dam that makes critical habitat for rare, threatened and endangered species—but you might need a permit to put in a flow-control device that's hydrologically invisible and maintains the habitat for rare, threatened and endangered species. How does that work?"
Coho salmon, chief among those threatened and endangered species, first inspired the OAEC's Dolman and Lundquist to think about beavers. Coho, which experienced a sharp decline in population in the 20th century, as well as other salmonid species, require cool water, complexity of habitat and water flow in summer and fall. "And our sense was, we need all the help we can get," says Dolman. "We kept coming across these papers, especially work out of Oregon and Washington state," he says, that showed "a positive correlation . . . between beneficial beaver habitat and a support for coho salmon, specifically—also steelhead and Chinook."