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Beavers! The key to a better North Bay environment

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"And it just got us thinking," says Dolman in his 2015 presentation in Sonoma. "We ought to bring another tool in the toolbox here. And so we began really looking at beaver as an additional component to how we could recover these endangered species."

In Sonoma County's Russian River watershed, a host of agencies contributed to a salmon release and the construction of an expensive beaver pond analog in 2013, touted to promote the return of coho that, ultimately, would not be dependent on a hatchery. Beaver believers say that this, and much more, could be more cheaply achieved by simply letting the beavers alone. No beavers have been documented in the Russian River watershed, but there is an unsubstantiated report of a beaver being killed in reputedly environmentally conscious west Sonoma County—perhaps the "disperser" that had previously been observed moving west from Spring Lake in Santa Rosa.

Some cattle ranchers in Nevada, in fact, are moving further ahead in beaver consciousness than landowners in California wine country, according to Lundquist. "They stopped shooting them, and suddenly they have more water," Lundquist says. Some have gone on record as saying they wouldn't be in ranching now if it weren't for the beaver.

Perhaps wine country has some catching up to do in this regard, when a property like Napa County's Domaine Chandon, which is certified Fish Friendly Farming for one of its vineyards, can claim on its website, "We embellish waterways with native vegetation, maintain wildlife corridors, preserve forested areas in the vineyard and employ clean water protection to encourage fish habitat and spawning," while applying for a 2013 permit to kill beaver in that very same fish-spawning habitat.

And if the beaver believers are right, as the numerous scientific studies they point to suggest, there is no better way to be fish-friendly than to be beaver-friendly. The beavers are not going away. There are some intractable parties, such as the absentee landowner on Sonoma's Leveroni Road who, according to state records, refuses to consider alternative options to repeated depredation permit requests. But ultimately this approach is doomed to fail, says Swift.

"A story you often hear in California," says Swift, "is, 'I've been going down to that place for an hour every day for X number of years, and I've shot and trapped Y number of beavers, and they're still there!' Yeah, you're in beaver habitat! Geology drives beaver habitat. Unless you can literally move mountains, you're not changing anything about beavers' attraction to your site."

Lundquist says killing beavers is neither a viable nor economical strategy. "For one, people hold candlelight vigils, like they did in Tahoe. And it can be really bad press if you're trying to do the right thing—or be seen as doing the right thing, anyway."

Thus far, few Sonoma and Napa wineries seem to have any clue as to what that right thing may be. The 427-page California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Workbook, for instance, on which the Sonoma County Winegrowers bases its initiative to make Sonoma County 100 percent sustainable by 2019, only mentions beavers incidentally in a section on "often overlooked" aquatic habitats.

Meanwhile in Kenwood, grape grower Bill Ostrander has found a way to live with the beavers. After consulting with Dolman, he installed a fairly inexpensive, single-strand electric fence that only had to reach four inches off the ground—beavers can't jump, and since they're generally covered in water, they're highly conductive.

Ostrander had thought about the usual option. "Yeah, I thought about it," he says, "but it was fairly straightforward and inexpensive to put up the electric fence, and not a lot of trouble as far as impacting the operations in the vineyard."

Although he hasn't seen the rodents personally, it does seem that Ostrander enjoys observing them, as well as the other animals caught on camera, like the surprise appearance of a family of otters.

It should be no surprise if the mere "life support" activities that various agencies employ to keep salmonids and other threatened species won't cut it through the upcoming challenges of climate change, says the outspoken Swift. "Until we can coexist with beavers, those of us in the restoration movement, those of us that want to move the dial in a positive direction, are hamstrung by a regulatory environment that's solely focused on doing less bad less often." Swift looks forward to a day when the state can start turning the beaver's tail in the other direction. "If you're headed south, it doesn't matter how slowly you go south—you're never getting north."

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