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.
By the early 1900s, only about 1,000 beavers remained in the state
Over the next several decades, conservationists began to recognize the benefits of beavers and began advocating for an end to over-trapping, even supporting efforts to reintroduce beavers to degraded stream channels. The science began trickling in to substantiate the claim that beaver dams conserve water because, as Brock Dolman explains, they “slow it, spread it and sink it.”
“It turns out that as water backs up behind small temporary dams, it flows out across the floodplain of a stream, giving it an opportunity to water riparian forests, trap sediment and slow the water so that it has time to sink into the gravel and replenish the groundwater,” said Dolman, Occidental Arts and Ecology Center WATER Institute director. And this is only the first of many benefits.
While the merits of the beaver were beginning to be known, the hassle of living with them was also real. Landowners have long been frustrated when beavers chew down their favorite trees, block their culverts or burrow through their levees. One person’s ecosystem engineer is another person’s demolition crew.
So California has maintained a depredation permit system that allows private property owners to kill offending beavers. The state also still maintains a recreational trapping season in the majority of counties. At this time, the status of California’s beaver populations is unclear.
In an effort to promote beaver stewardship, Dolman and Kate Lundquist, also of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center WATER Institute, have been leading a statewide effort to promote beaver stewardship. They work with farmers, vineyard owners, municipalities and resource agencies across the state to share emerging techniques for receiving the watershed benefits that beavers provide while preventing property damage.
Napa Valley Wine Train’s packages
Quattro Vino Journeys ($332 to $392 per person.)
The Famiglia Tour. The six-hour trip from Napa to Rutherford features a four-course meal and tours of Silverado Vineyards, Whitehall Lane Winery and Grgich Hills Estate.
The Estate Tour. The six-hour trip from Napa to St. Helena features a four-course meal and tours of Domain Chandon, HALL Wines and Inglenook.
The Collective Tour. The six-hour trip from Napa to St. Helena features a four-course meal and tours of St. Supery Estate Vineyards, Beringer Winery and Raymond Vineyards.
The Legacy Tour. The six-hour trip from Napa to St. Helena, features a four-course meal and tours of Robert Mondavi Winery, Charles Krug Winery and V. Sattui Winery.
Castle Winery Tour. The one-and-a-half hour trip from Napa to Calistoga features a gourmet lunch and an exclusive tour and tasting at Castello di Amorosa. ($269 to $334 per person.)
Raymond Winery Tour. The one-and-a-half hour trip from Napa to St. Helena features a gourmet lunch and an exclusive tour and tasting at Raymond Vineyards. ($209 to $229 per person.)
Grgich Hills Winery Tour. The two-hour trip from Napa to Rutherford features a gourmet lunch and an intimate tour and tasting at Grgich Hills Estate. ($209 to $229per person.)
Ambassador Winery Tour. The one-and-a-half hour trip from Napa to St. Helena features a gourmet lunch and exclusive tours and tastings at Charles Krug Winery and Raymond Vineyards. ($269 to $334 per person.)
Hop Train. The two-hour tour of Napa Valley in the Open Air car every Monday features tastes of local craft beers and bites from Palisades Beer Co. (Begins at $75 per person.)
The Vista Dome. The three-hour tour of Napa Valley, offered at lunch and dinner in the two-story Vista Dome, an elevated dining car, features a gourmet meal with a glass of sparkling wine. ($214 to $244 per person.)
The Gourmet Express. The three-hour tour of Napa Valley, offered at lunch and dinner in the refurbished antique Pullman rail cars, features a gourmet meal and a glass of wine. ($139 to $169 per person.)
Murder Mystery. The three-hour tour of Napa Valley features dining on a gourmet meal with a glass of wine while figuring out who-done-it in the murder mystery dinner theatre. ($195 to $215 per person.)
Meet the Maker. The three-hour evening rail tour of Napa Valley features a four-course gourmet dinner with a selection of wine from the featured winery, tasting notes from the winemaker, and food pairings. (Begins at $272 per person.)
Blue Note Express Music & Dinner Train. The four-hour tour of Napa Valley, offered every Thursday night, features a glass of sparkling wine and appetizers onboard the new Open Air rail car with a Napa-style meal, a live performance from the “Wine Train Quartet” and a ticket to the 9:30 p.m. show at Blue Note Napa. (Begins at $213 per person.)
Santa Trains: The annual Santa Trains, from Napa to Yountville, feature an interactive adventure and offer its passengers holiday bites and beverages, along with games, sing-alongs, and a fun cast of holiday-inspired characters. (Prices not yet set.)