Beavers, known as ecosystem engineers, have long history in Sonoma County

You won’t find a Beaver Creek in Sonoma County. Likewise, there’s no Beaver Pond, Beaver Dam or Beaverton. No Beaver Glade or Beaver Falls either.

Wander north to the Mendocino Coast and you will find Beaver Point jutting into the ocean. In Humboldt, even though beavers prefer well-watered valleys, there’s Beaver Ridge and Beaver Butte. Keep going and you’ll eventually reach Oregon, whose nickname is “The Beaver State.”

Here in Sonoma, there’s a glaring, beaver-shaped gap in our place names. Until recently, this wouldn’t have surprised most biologists. Around 1940, two zoological studies concluded that beavers were not native to the Bay Area. Consequently, there were few regulations protecting them. In fact, beavers have often been considered “nuisance animals” because their dam and burrow-building can destroy trees, undermine levees, and cause flooding.

A 2013 study refuted the assumption that beavers are not native and “don’t belong” here. Research spearheaded by Kate Lundquist and Brock Dolman of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, working with partners from other organizations, uncovered solid historical and physical evidence that beavers were here at the beginning of 19th-century and before. In fact, California’s first “rush” wasn’t the Gold Rush, but a “fur rush.”

In 1809, a ship from the Russian-American Company visited Bodega Bay and returned to Sitka, the capital of Russian America, with beaver pelts. Three years later, the “abundance of seal, otter and beaver” led to the founding of Fort Ross. In the 1830s, a scout for the Hudson’s Bay Company characterized the area north of Bodega as “rich in beaver.” Around the same time, Mariano Vallejo described the Laguna de Santa Rosa, which runs from Cotati to Sebastopol and beyond, as “great tulare lakes teaming with beaver.” George Simpson, Hudson Bay Company administrator, reported beaver just a half mile from the Sonoma Mission in 1842.

The impression that beavers were common in Sonoma County is supported by the fact that all our indigenous languages — Coast Miwok, Wappo and Pomo — have words for beaver.

But after 1850, the beaver record grows sparse. It appears that, locally, they were hunted to extinction. It happened so early and so quickly in our history, that beavers were literally “wiped from the map.” By the early 20th century, Sonoma’s beavers had not only been trapped out of existence but had passed from living memory.

Surprisingly, that statement no longer holds true. In the 1990s, beavers showed up in Sonoma Creek, recolonizing some of their former territory. From there they’ve expanded their population into the Santa Rosa Creek watershed. While beavers can cause damage, they can also provide benefits, especially in times of drought and climate change. Beaver dams slow and hold run off from winter storms, which helps replenish groundwater; collect soil that might otherwise erode; and create habitat for many other creatures.

As “ecosystem engineers” beavers once helped maintain extensive wetlands here and elsewhere in California. Today, a century after their temporary demise, water has become more valuable than fur. In many places, they’re being welcomed back to the landscape while innovative solutions are devised to minimize the damage “busy beavers” might cause.

There is no Beaver Creek in Sonoma County, but considering their history, it seems like there should be. Maybe someday there will.

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