Monday, December 22, 2014

State of the Beaver Address… Improving!!

As the year ends there are a lot of good things to be thankful for when it comes to beaver/human relations and there have been a lot of promising developments that encourage and emboldens the struggle for beaver believers.

On the local front we saw the publication of Lanman et al. Historical Range of Beaver in Coastal California: A Review of the Evidence which I discussed here. The paper which, well to put it no uncertain terms, justifies the blog you are reading as I am an advocate for restoring beaver to coastal southern Californian watersheds from which they have been extirpated. Although the paper did not set the world ablaze and there have been some critics - I think ultimately the paper will act as a slow burning ember and continually stoke the embers of restoration. Already we are seeing the conversation shift will several notable features (here and here) stating simply that beaver were in the past native to most of the state of California. And there has been no organized rebuttal to the paper even though the CDFW still seems to posit beavers as non-native to most of the state (ironically they published the paper). But the CDFW has changed their view in the past, they changed their view on wolves in the state last year did you notice? The thing with revolutions, especially academic ones, is that it takes years and sometimes decades to change entrenched notions. Sometimes many of the staunch opponents to new knowledge who serve as "gatekeepers" in a sense have to... how should I put it... well father time is undefeated and when the older crop dies off so does their entrenched ideas. And a younger generation takes over who came up with the knowledge always at hand. Oh and I just saw today, which my parents linked to me (yes they are in the beaver believer cult), an online article noting beaver benefits from the local free press. Beavers Can Help Rebuild California's Wetlands. Maybe I should write a larger piece for them in their dead tree edition that really highlights ventura counties connection to beaver - the Sespe River specimen from the Lanman paper was a cornerstone piece of evidence remember.

On a more personal note the Santa Ynez River beavers that I have been visiting and watching seem to have made it through the drought. Where they go and how they cope in a river that pretty much dries up completely for long stretches is still a mystery but I have my ideas. If you have not followed my complete series of posts on these amazingly adaptable beavers of the Santa Barbara wine country below is the complete rundown:

9/23/2013 Beaver Safari on the Santa Ynez River

3/24/2014 Beaver/Salmonid Workshop Part II: Santa Ynez Beaver Tour

5/1/2014 Beaver Safari on the Santa Ynez River Part II: Surviving the Drought

7/29/2014 Odds N' Ends. the most depressing documentation of a river pretty much turned into a dust bowl.

10/22/2014 Santa Ynez Beavers Pulling Through in the Drought despite the river completely drying up the beavers recolonized it with the return of flows from Cachuma reservoir!!

11/3/2014 The Blair Witch Beavers of the Santa Ynez River further evidence of beaver persistence and documentation of a novel method of river water diversion/modifying river flow by beavers? And some bearded guy posing in front of a beaver pond.

On a more big picture note this past year also saw the widely acclaimed and excellent NOVA documentary Leave it to Beavers. Which if you have not seen yet and have not forced your friends and family to watch stop what you are doing right now (well you can finish reading this post) and go watch it on youtube, NOVA/PBS, and it also available on netflix.

We also saw several western states in need of water such as New Mexico move in a direction towards proactive beaver programs and a growth in awareness and advocacy for beaver to restore wetlands/mitigate drought through a number of webinars/studies/articles to long to get into but these are encouraging and I don't think we have seen the peak yet!! The Beaver Believers documentary got funded. The Damnation film was released and met with critical acclaim and is also available to watch on Netflix. Although the film is not specifically about beavers - or even salmon per se - it does speak to a growing appreciation of natural behaving watersheds. And Patagonia, which produced the film, is a Ventura county company and several of the makers of the film are very pro-beaver and very interested in southern steelhead. 

Yes all of these developments (and more which I probably forgot) are encouraging and shine a light on the growing pro-beaver sentiment in  North America, and let's not forget over the pond in Scotland/England where similar struggles are occurring with regards to native vs non-native status, salmon movement etc etc. But I would be remiss if I were to suggest that there was not also bad news and I want to focus on two stories that also came up.

1) Beaver and invasive species. For me this is an issue of perspective and putting the onus where it belongs. Several papers have came out suggesting that beaver modifications can provide habitat for non-native species. I might diverge from some of my colleagues in the beaver believer movement on this one but it is no great controversy to me that the slow flowing waters of a beaver pond make great habitat for many of the prime suspects in California invasive species - crayfish, bullfrogs, carp, large/smallmouth bass - I have seen several of these species in beaver ponds first hand. What I take issue with is inculcating beaver as public enemy number one in non-native species problems and using the habitat that they create as an argument against protection/reintroduction. The onus has to go on the species that put the non-natives there in the first place, Homo sapiens, us. And if the CDFW does not come up with a comprehensive plan for dealing with invasive species, if they continue to stock lakes/reservoirs with them and collect fees for fishing for them, and CA lacks the public or private will to eradicate them: we might as well admit that invasives are here to stay. What often gets left out of the invasive species question with regards to beaver is that the LA river has no beaver in it and is 100% non-native fish species. There is not a native species left in that watershed!! Invasive species might just be the new normal and at least we can still have the herons, egrets, kingfishers, mergansers, white pelicans, and raptors that love to eat invasives and also love to fish in beaver ponds. 

2) Beavers and climate change. This one is patently ridiculous and am surprised it got the traction it got.  But a paper published recently here got some attention on the far right leaning news blog The Daily Caller here and also the science blog ZME here. Now I want to qualify this by pointing out that I emailed the lead author with my concerns over his study several days ago and put him on notice that I was going to be critically discussing his paper in the future and that if he had some words in his defense now was the time to let it be known. Crickets chirping is the only sound I got back from him. With regards to the paper itself the study sought to quantify the amount of degassing methane arising from beaver ponds on the three continents that they live on. The paper took this quantification, the efflux of carbon from beaver ponds via methane, and used that number to suggest that growing and expanding beaver populations will further increase global warming at some appreciable levels (but far below what humans or even cows do). Now I hope you caught the big problem with this study - they only looked at eflux and not influx of carbon. All the wetlands beaver create, all that vegetation, the expanded riparian corridor, the stages of a beaver pond which often silt in and go back to rich canopy forest - all of those factors which suck up tons of carbon from the atmosphere and often sequester it away underground were not looked at in factoring out the total carbon balance of influx/efflux of carbon in beaver mediated wetlands. That is a damming indictment on this study!! In fact I think it very much more reasonable to hypothesize beaver wetlands sequester away much more carbon from the atmosphere than they put into it!! As to how this study got published, peer reviewed and so on we can only speculate. But the real damage done is towards the casual reader of articles noting this study and simply equating beavers with global warming via methane outgassing.

Now for the Daily Caller article I am sure it is no surprise to you that the writer did not take a critical look at the obvious problems with this study. But the article did say this towards the end: "Does this mean that the government will have to start regulating beaver dams? Or maybe culling certain amounts of beavers every year? Only time will tell?" Now for such a reactionary, right leaning blog you can imagine how the comments section went - the commentators went straight into hackneyed beaver puns or climate change denier mode of course!! Which means my comments, which were negative towards the paper (but not towards the reality of anthropogenic climate change) got upvoted to number one probably because a lot of readers conflated my criticism with a criticism of climate change in general!! Irony, sweet-sweet irony. And if you read further you can see where I demolish a commentator's assertion that the near extermination of beavers saved untold millions from the ravages of Hantavirus. I won. That being said wading into the morass of the comments section is a soul destroying venture but you gotta do the dirty work sometimes...

As for the ZME article, which does take a more nuanced tone and notes that the methane outgassing from beaver ponds is paltry compared to other natural/manmade sources, it was still distressing because it gave a platform to a study with some obvious flaws and it is a purported science blog. The author who wrote it even has a background in geophysics and interest in environmental protection. Looks like a good background to catch some obvious flaws and maybe even make a good beaver ally? But nope. He published the post without doing due dilligence. After I called him out for it and linked to the exact article (which he did not bother to do on his own blog) he deleted one of my posts and offered no apology for his oversight. So Mihai Andrei the below picture is for you but you did worse because it was not a facebook post but a science blog post with which you you gave avenue to a misleading paper. 

Ok, Ok end of rant. To sandwich the bad news with some good news and for your winter wonderment I give you this:

Lake Elmo Winter Beavers photographed by John Warner (story here is not so magickal)

and probably the best thing I have read on beavers in a while, and a beautiful free xmas present to the world is the outstanding ebook with loads of info/photographs and all kinds of awesome stuff I did not even know (that beaver eat horsetails!?! that stuff is full of silica!!) It's free check it out!!

Beavers By the Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau Alaska by Mary F. Willson & Robert H. Armstrong

Merry Xmas & Happy New Year!! Cheers!!

The Most Epic Beaver Dam Ever? Bob Armstrong, Mendenhall Glacier Alaska

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

When Communities Don't Take Ownership Of Their Rivers Guess Who Does?

Although this is a blog about beavers, specifically in southern California, any talk of beavers naturally lends itself into a very META analysis of water and watersheds in general. This post definitely falls under this banner.

The above is a picture taken underneath the Victoria bridge overpass of the Santa Clara river which straddles the cities of Oxnard and Ventura in Ventura county. Now regardless of your opinion of "graffiti art" - I quite like and would draw a distinct line between this and "graffiti tagging" - I highlight this picture because when communities are cut off from their rivers, or more often than not lawfully forbidden from entering their rivers, guess who takes sole ownership of said rivers? These abandoned rivers become the province of the homeless, the dispossessed, the drug dependent, and the artists who can't find a canvas elsewhere. My point here is not to bash these groups; the path towards addressing these social issues is obviously beyond the scope of this post. But I find a disconnect in many of our communities in that the rivers that should be the jewel of our urban, suburban, or rural communities - usually becomes the last recompense of some of the most marginalized groups in said communities. And that these marginalized groups find haven in rivers, does not speak well too the value many communities places on these rivers, de facto viewing rivers themselves as marginalized pieces of the landscape. And like the marginalized groups inhabiting them, avoiding at all costs to personalize, make contact with, engage with, or hold in high esteem at all. Instead forget, ignore, and marginalize the rivers that houses said groups further.

A relatively too frequent thing happens when I engage people who live in a community about a river that flows through that same community. Usually they do not even know the name of the river I speak of and will something to the effect of, "Oh you mean that thing that floods occasionally that I cross on the 101 freeway? Yeah I usually think of it as a big drainage ditch and don't go down there because there are a lot of dangerous homeless and drug addicts living in it."

And the above sentiment is pretty much par for the course. Apathy no doubt has crept in. But it is not entirely the fault of the person in question. Communities are literally cut off from their rivers by signs legally prohibiting them from entering, by walls, fences, and private property. No wonder the apathy and disinterest when people are not even allowed to get in physical proximity to the rivers in their very own communities. When rivers are outlawed only outlaws live in rivers.

Santa Clara River. Santa Paula. great potential beaver habitat btw
Interestingly a strange thing occurs, at least here in southern California, when a river is restored or revitalized - said revitalization efforts pay a nod to the ecological health of the river, but emphasis is geared more towards making the river a "human playground". Recently the Santa Ana River has received attention for restoration efforts, but in all actuality the "restoration" is nominal, the push is towards making the river navigable for kayaks and rafting. Here is a line lifted directly from the abc news report:

"There is a big push to reclaim the Santa Ana River. It's become overrun with vegetation and rocks, but now a local group is working to clear the waterway for kayaking and rafting."

Video and Link Here. Now let's unpack that statement a bit. They use the word "reclaim", but reclaim for what or better yet for whom? And then the zinger "overrun with vegetation and rocks". Now it would be one thing if they were talking about invasive arundo reed or rocks/concrete dumped by humans. But they are not. Rocks and vegetation are natural and beneficial parts of a river for crying out loud. What they are referring to, if you watch the video or read article, is naturally occurring willow/cottonwood trees that line the river. Good things. Even in restoration efforts we can't seem to stop wanting to control/modify/or usurp rivers for our own purposes. Why do we have to make rivers "playgrounds" for people. Can't we just let a river be a river?

Can we strike a compromise between complete apathy of our watersheds/rivers to total control/augmentation/human mediated use?

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