Orphaned baby beaver finds comfort with otters at local shelter

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For More Information

Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue: www.scwildliferescue.org

Occidental Arts and Environmental Center "Bring Back the Beaver" booklet: oaec.org/publications/beaver-in-california

Some of the world’s most successful environmental engineers don’t take student loans or Ivy League degrees.

When fully trained, they’re experts at site selection and the fundamentals of hydraulics, and they construct their sturdy waterworks entirely from natural materials.

They tend to sleep most of the day and exclusively wear fur, but their projects recharge aquifers, restore ruined habitats, reduce catastrophic flooding, slow wildfires and shelter migrating salmon from drought. They work without plans, can fell trees unerringly away from their constructions using just their teeth and yet are still considered pests by humans with projects of their own.

We don’t get to see Castor canadensis, the 60-pound North American beaver, in Sonoma County very often, so I jumped at the invitation to see one up close at the Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue.

An orphaned young kit, little more than a year old, is there for care and rehab before release to back to the wild.

The orphan beaver has made her home inside a makeshift lodge, a domed plastic igloo, beneath a shady enclosure. When it was lifted off, we found her seated calmly on her trademark paddle tail, front paws on her chest. She was wrapped in clean, thick straight auburn fur, luxurious and shiny enough to be in a premium haircare commercial.

Up close, she is surprisingly large, much larger than any house cat, with dainty cupped ears, black bead eyes, long clawed front paws perfect for digging, and discreetly webbed hind feet. The fine raised pattern covering her long tail looks like it might have been molded by artisans. She didn’t bare her chisel-sharp incisors – those four, flat, fast-growing, front beaver teeth — but when she snacked on a raw yam as she patiently waited for us to leave, she carved it away effortlessly.

The rescue center sits high on a hill off Meacham Road, with 5-plus acres for a hospital, and rehabilitation sections for raptors, foxes, bobcat, puma and other wildlife who will be returned to the wild, and some permanent residents, who, for various reasons, cannot go back.

As we stood inside the spacious animal enclosure with the little beaver, I asked Danielle Mattos, the Animal Care Director, why her team and volunteers go to such effort and expense to rescue animals like this.

“Most of the animals are here because of human interactions, ” Mattos explained. “People disrupt habitats and wildlife gets injured. So we think it’s important to take some responsibility, to do what we can to get them back to health and returned to the wild.”

Social creatures

Caring for a solitary beaver is a real challenge, because in the wild, beavers are highly social. Left alone, they often stop eating, stop grooming and won’t come out of their den. The orphan at SCWR seems to be acclimating. She’s sharing space with three young and frisky recovering river otters in a protected space around a natural looking re-circulating pond. The pond, donated and built by a Petaluma company, Aquascape, is actually the only aquatic marine mammal rehabilitation enclosure for much of the state.

“When the beaver’s in the water,” Mattos smiles, “she’s the queen of the pool.”

The young beaver, because of its age and inexperience, can’t be released for at least another year, Mattos sayid. To survive, beaver kits must learn the complex, essentials skills of dam building and maintenance, tree felling and food sources, lodge making and avoiding predators. In the wild, they gain this knowledge from parents and siblings. That can take two years. This one can’t be sent back until she’s mastered them here.

For More Information

Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue: www.scwildliferescue.org

Occidental Arts and Environmental Center "Bring Back the Beaver" booklet: oaec.org/publications/beaver-in-california

Beaver were once apparently common in Sonoma County and much of California.

By the early 1800s they’d been locally wiped out and are now extremely rare here. Recent beaver sightings near Kenwood and Sonoma, Maxwell Farms and near Tolay Regional Park suggest a few may be making their way back from small surviving populations in the San Joaquin Valley and Bay Area.

The orphan at the rescue center isn’t a local. She was found in Central California, near Madera. A backhoe operator clearing a drainage ditch there apparently swiped the bank where the beaver were denning, killing the parents and siblings, leaving one survivor.

A few months old, she was delivered to a local veterinarian, then volunteers from the Fresno Wildlife Rehabilitation Service picked her up, and she came into the care of Cathy Gardner, the wildlife center’s director.

“Normally”, Gardner says, “baby beaver are cross, cranky, temperamental. They will throw their bottle away, make noises. This one was sweet, very different.” Unfortunately, she was also ill. Beaver urine is caustic. In water, where beaver normally live, it’s rapidly diluted. But penned up, the baby beaver’s tail and feet were badly burned. Gardner nursed her through the resulting infection, changing pads around the clock.

Then the orphan was recently transferred to the rescue center here, to the aquatic marine mammal rehabilitation pool.

Careful attention

Staff at the SWRC follow strict protocols with their charges, so the animals don’t lose their ability to survive in the wild. Human contact is limited as much as possible. The animals aren’t given names. Careful attention is given not only to providing appropriate wild foods, but enriching their temporary habitats to keep them occupied and engaged in activities like the ones they’d experience in their wild habitat.

The otters require whole fish. The beaver is now going through about a cubic yard of willow and aspen branches – a pickup truck load – every week.

She’s also started trying to dam the pool’s rushing inlet waterfall, a good sign.

Beaver are obsessively attracted to the sound of rushing water, and in the wild, will make every effort to dam the sound with branches, mud and carefully placed sticks. It’s the only way to preserve their pond, which protects them from predators.

That instinctive behavior is one reason beaver are considered pests in places where farmers, ranchers and engineers have spent the past hundred years building water systems across the West.

Human efforts are focused on moving water efficiently down narrow, well-defined channels, steering it to orchards, vineyards, farms and towns, or draining it rapidly away to prevent flooding, opening land for cultivation or construction.

Beavers treat water very differently. Their waterworks do pretty much the opposite. Their ponds spread water out, slow it down, blocking narrow channels. Their dams traps silt and encourage the growth of trees and plants. The result is widened and overgrown water channels, broad shallow wetlands and meandering streams.

Protected species

Because humans now live nearly everywhere beavers once did, the remaining four-legged engineers frequently build their dens in levees and dams in drainage channels, sometimes chewing down woody grape vines and orchards and dropping trees in the wrong places. And that often puts them in conflict with human interests.

By law, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife issues depredation permits to kill beaver to anyone in California who considers one troublesome, which is currently thousands of times a year.

Not surprisingly, beavers’ unique engineering talents have also made them very popular with modern conservationists and resource managers.

Beaver ponds, for example, are essential shelter for juvenile salmon, trout and other fish, providing pools of upstream water even in drought years.

The ponds stop snowmelt and heavy rains from rushing downstream too swiftly, allowing it to recharge and replenish groundwater along the way. Where beaver live, they’re a keystone species, altering the environment in ways that provide habitat for a rich and diverse network of plants, insects and other animals. Beaver wetlands are also proving to be a bulwark against wildfires in western states, where they’re being managed.

At the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, Kate Lundquist and Brock Dolman, co-Directors of the OAEC Water Institute, have been active for more than ten years in efforts to Bring Back the Beaver to their historic range in California, in places they can provide maximum benefit.

According to Lundquist, beaver fall into the public’s blind spot and restoring their legacy in the state has been challenging, since for many decades they’ve been cast as vermin, or mistakenly, as non-native.

Dolman says other states are amazed at just how hard and complicated it is to try and restore beaver to California. Across the west, in Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and other states, managed beaver re-introductions have been occurring for years, demonstrating multiple benefits to watersheds, to the delight of ranchers and conservationists alike.

It can be frustrating, Dolman notes. “We spend tens of millions in efforts to save Pacific salmon as they continue to disappear, trying to restore degraded habit and drought-proof pools, and repair erosion-cut streambeds, when the beaver will work for free.”

Nonetheless, beaver remain controversial in many California locations, as Gardner in Fresno attests. A large part of the problem, Lundquist said, is that many landowners and agencies aren’t familiar with existing tested techniques and technology that allow co-existence with beaver.

Animal control

Solutions range from simply painting tree trunks or vines with sand and paint (the beaver hate it), to using pond leveler devices, and other beaver-proof systems. One vineyard installed an electric fence four inches off the ground to keep the beaver out — it works because they can’t jump.

“What we need now is an endowment or bill to fund a Beaver Management Plan for the state that will ensure all interests are protected, while providing suitable habitat,” Lundquist says.

Engaging wildlife to protect declining fisheries, restore water resources and defend against wildfires may be the most sensible and cost-effective approach to problems that widely impact human populations.

At the SCWR, Mattos says they can use contributions, including green willow branches – call first — to help them raise their orphan. The OAEC has published a booklet detailing the long history and impact of beaver in California, as well as steps the public can take to encourage and manage the return of beaver to the state.

Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer and speaker. Contact him at snett@californiasparks.com.

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