How beavers are helping the Tule River Tribe of California fight wildfires

beaver at a dam
In recent years there has been a growing interest in traditional ecological knowledge from tribes, and the beaver has become celebrated as an ecological engineer. Credit: Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images/Getty

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After a decade of work, the Tule River Tribe has released nine beavers into the nation’s reservation in the foothills of California’s southern Sierra Nevada mountains. The beavers are expected to make the landscape more fire and drought resistant. Beaver dams trap water in pools, making the flow of water slower so the surrounding ecosystem can reap the benefits of the moisture while making it more difficult for forest fires to start. They can also help a forest heal after a fire by rehydrating the area. 

“We’ve been through numerous droughts over the years,” Kenneth McDarmet said, who is a Tule River tribal member and former councilman. “It’s going to be wonderful to watch them do their thing.”

Around 80 percent of the Tule River Reservation’s drinking water comes from the Tule watershed. Because the area is so important for the health of the community, the tribe has been preparing the area since 2014, building man-made dams to help the new beavers adapt more quickly. 

Temperatures worldwide are expected to get hotter, increasing drought and creating conditions that make wildfires bigger and more deadly. In California, some of the worst wildfires on record have happened in the last five years partly due to drought. In 2020, three fires burned almost a million acres in the Sierra Nevada Forest, and in 2021 a wildfire burned an additional 1.5 million acres. Bringing beavers back may offer a break.

Prior to colonization, the North American beaver population was estimated to be around 200 million. But in the 1800’s, beavers were hunted for their pelts by settlers, decimating the population, while farmers and landowners viewed — and still view them — as pests. Today, the beaver population is estimated to be about 12 million. 

But in recent years there has been a growing interest in traditional ecological knowledge from tribes, and the beaver has become celebrated as an ecological engineer. 

In 2022, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, or CDFW, secured funding for the Beaver Restoration Program, a program designed to restore the beaver population and support conservation efforts. In 2023, the CDFW recognized beavers as a keystone species, an animal that affects other animals on the landscape like bison or bees, and thus influences the ecosystem in major ways. Their absence typically has negative effects on the landscape and its interconnected ecosystems. 

Today, the CDFW program partners with tribes, non-profit organizations, land-owners, and state and federal entities to restore beaver populations and habitats in an effort to improve climate change, drought, and wildfire resilience in California. 

“We expect better habitat conditions for native critters on the land,” said Krysten Kallum, a public information officer with the CDFW. “It creates a refuge for plants and wildlife.”

More water means more plants that can attract other types of animals to the area. The CDFW expects to see better habitat development for amphibians like the western pond turtles, southern mountain yellow-legged frogs, and southwestern willow flycatchers, which will help increase biodiversity. 

McDarment, of Tule River, said that tribal pictographs show beavers living in the area, and it’s good to see them here again.  

“My hope is to have beaver throughout the reservation,” he said. 

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