• SLO.INFO Team

Odd Animal Obispo- Beaver Brigade Edition!

Oceano Slough Beaver. Photo courtesy Robyn Brinkerhoff

SLO county is famous for its beaches, rolling hills, and abundant wild spaces. A closer, or well timed, look among the towering oaks, grazing deer and lurking rattlesnakes, reveals that many more unique species abound. Recently, a lone wolf has made headlines as it's tragic plight for a mate has taken the collared canine from top of Oregon to our backyard. A search for Roadrunners on iNaturalist brings up a surprising abundance of sightings, in Irish Hills and other chaparral covered hillsides. We have the largest herd of Tule Elk in the state living in the southeast corner of the county. The list goes on.

And while these sightings are unusual, they're clearly not unheard of. It turns out that humans are starting to notice their less common company. There is a wolf rescue organization in North County, a local train running club called the Roadrunners, and, it turns out, a Beaver Brigade!

We recently had a conversation with Audrey from the SLO Beaver Brigade. Let’s just say she was, eager, to share her passion! Portions of this interview, which happened over email, have been edited for brevity and clarity. Photos below courtesy of Donald Quintana.

Tell us about when you knew that beavers needed a brigade? Do you remember the first time you saw one?

I've been watching the beavers on the Salinas River for about 15 years. In following the tracks of the animals that live around the Salinas River, they often lead to the beaver ponds. I spent a lot of time at the River learning animal tracking, the substrate is ideal there to hold a track & it's details. I don't remember the first time I saw a beaver, but I do remember finding their pond. It was almost dream-like, to be walking in Atascadero in the hot summertime and coming across a huge expanse of cold water! I immediately went swimming and have been watching this particular pond ebb and flow ever since over the years. It was apparent to me early on that the beavers needed support. I even had to pull a dead beaver out of this very pond one year, apparently shot. This was 7 years ago. Their dams are also often crushed under the wheels of OHV's, sometimes destroying their dams along with the riparian habitat. I've also been aware that whenever I share with anyone around here, even folks that grew up in North County, that beavers live on the Salinas River, very few people have any idea that beavers live here in SLO County.

Back in the late fall of 2019, a group of friends and I got together to talk about climate change and what we each wanted to do about it. Supporting the beavers was something I felt called to do in support of contributing to climate resilience, that is when the SLO Beaver Brigade was born.

There was recently a California Beaver Summit. For those of us who might have missed it, what were some highlights?

The first ever summit on beavers in CA. And it sold out at 1000 people! So many good things, I'll name a few:

1. Rick Lanman, shared recent (2012) studies that show that beavers are native to California. There is a lot of misinformation about beavers being non-native since they were essentially hunted to extinction from most of California back in 1794-1870. And a lot of CDFW policies were created based on that misinformation. Rick presented the data on beavers being native and hopefully the policies will begin to follow suit.

2. Mike Callahan of The Beaver Institute spoke about Beaver Management Tools. These are pretty simple tools people can use to mitigate any damage that a beaver, beaver dam or beaver pond could create. Beavers are incredible engineers, and they manipulate their landscapes a lot like we do. They also like to live in the same rich river valleys that we humans also prefer. That can create potential conflicts with road culverts getting dammed or roads/land getting flooded or trees being felled on someone's property. Each of these issues can be mitigated and Mike Callahan has been one of the leaders in installing and training folks on these tools. He gave a great presentation on the tools available. ( Also, Cooper Lienhart of the SLO Beaver Brigade has been learning from Mike so that when this area has more beavers on the landscape, we will be prepared to deal with any potential conflicts that might arise.)

3. Dr. Emily Fairfax presented on the benefits that beavers provide wildlife during large scale fires. She shared incredible photos of wildfires in Idaho and Washington and in the middle or edges of these hundreds of thousands of acres of charred, burned earth are lush, beautiful, green beaver complexes. Beavers help stop the spread of wildfires and provide important refugia for the animals during a wildfire. Dr. Emily Fairfax is also researching our beavers on the Salinas River in North County. She makes regular trips here and we arrange for educational walks out to the beaver complex with her.

4. Bob Pagliuco of NOAA, spoke about how fish benefit from beaver ponds.

5. Michael Pollack of NOAA spoke about beavers and how they recharge our aquifers.

6. Kevin Swift spoke about creating BDA (human made beaver dams called Beaver Dam Analogs) to mimic the restorative effects of beaver dams on streams that no longer have beaver on them. And since relocating beavers is illegal in the state of CA ( as opposed to Utah, WA and Oregon where they use beavers to restore streams), we have to build and maintain structures to add complexity to our streams to return them to some semblance of health.

Oh, I could go on and on. It was so informative and relevant to CA. We in CA struggle with fire, drought, flood, and depleting aquifers. And it just so happens that beavers help with those very things: fire, drought, flood and depleted aquifers. It was great to hear the experts, the scientists and the restoration practitioners, share their knowledge and experience of what beavers do for a landscape and every living thing in it.

Heidi Perryman of Worth A Dam (and the main organizer of the CA Beaver Summit) created great 5 minute clips of each day

Day 1 Highlights

Day 2 Highlights

From what I could tell, there has only been one study, done by Cal Poly a few years ago, on the amount of beavers who live in SLO county, in the Salinas river watershed in particular. We recently saw one in the Oceano slough. What other SLO county sightings have you heard of? And how many animals do you think live in our area?

Right now, the Salinas River and its tributaries and Arroyo Grande Creek are the only (other) places where beavers are living in SLO County that we are aware of.

There's an old childhood riddle that ends with “What do cows drink?” And most people say milk. Likewise, if you ask people what beavers eat, they'll likely say wood. Which is partially true, right? What are their primary food sources locally?

It really is true that beavers eat the bark, stems, buds of trees. Mostly they are eating willow in our area. Also cottonwoods. Right now, in the spring/summer they seem to be eating lots of cattails and water plants along with the willows. I must admit that I didn't believe that beavers were strictly vegetarian until I started finding their scat. It is sawdust. There aren't any fish, insect parts, nothing but plant material in their scat. Cooper Lienhart and I filmed some scat for everyone to see, check it out!

What are some of the top things that SLO county folks can do, to observe, and help protect, these creatures?

1. Get on our mailing list and come out on an educational walk to a beaver dam. There is nothing better than seeing first hand the lush environment the beavers create in this arid zone.

2. Talk to your friends about beavers and the benefits they provide: fire breaks, water recharge, reducing the intensity of floods, keeping the water on the landscape longer "Slow It, Sink It, Spread It". There is a lot of education that needs to happen to counter the historical attitude that beavers are rodents and therefore bad.

What's next for the Beaver Brigade?

We are committed to educating our County on beavers and their benefits. We will continue offering walks with Dr. Emily Fairfax and inviting our local politicians, water advisors, fire chiefs, activists to these walks to learn about how beavers can help. We are also committed to restoring our County watersheds back to health, which involves cleanups, restoration projects, and lots of education.

I think it would be great for the State of California to have a Beaver Management Plan similar to Utah. Also, currently it is illegal to relocate a beaver in the state of CA. I would love to see this law changed, similar to Washington. This would allow us to move beavers to areas that are needing the restoration that beavers provide - and keep alive the beavers that are located on properties that aren't excited about the beavers engineering choices.

Do you have a unique animal sighting you’d like us to explore? Drop us a line:

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