Beaver Believers: How to Restore Planet Water

with Brock Dolman and Kate Lundquist

In this age of global weirding where climate disruption has tumbled the Goldilocks effect into unruly surges of too much and too little water, the restoration of beavers offers ancient nature-based solutions to the tangle of challenges bedeviling human civilization. Droughts, floods, soil erosion, climate change, biodiversity loss – you name it, and beaver is on it.

In this episode, Kate Lundquist and Brock Dolman of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center share their semi-aquatic journey to becoming Beaver Believers. They are part of a passionate global movement to bring back our rodent relatives who show us how to heal nature by working with nature.


Kate Lundquist, co-director of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center’s WATER Institute and the Bring Back the Beaver Campaign in Sonoma County, is a conservationist, educator and ecological artist who works with landowners, communities and resource agencies to uncover obstacles, identify strategic solutions, and generate restoration recommendations to assure healthy watersheds, water security, listed species recovery and climate change resiliency.

Brock Dolmanco-founded (in 1994) the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center where he co-directs the WATER Institute. A wildlife biologist and watershed ecologist, he has been actively promoting “Bringing Back Beaver in California” since the early 2000s. He was given the Salmonid Restoration Federation’s coveted Golden Pipe Award in 2012: “…for his leading role as a proponent of “working with beavers” to restore native habitat.


  • Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
  • Written by: Kenny Ausubel
  • Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
  • Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris
  • Producer: Teo Grossman
  • Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
  • Production Assistance: Monica Lopez

This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast.

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Neil Harvey (Host): In this episode, Kate Lundquist and Brock Dolman of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center share their semi-aquatic journey to becoming Beaver Believers. They are part of a passionate global movement to bring back our rodent relatives who show us how to heal nature by working with nature… I’m Neil Harvey. This is “Beaver Believers: How to Restore Planet Water”.

We live on Planet Water, where water is life. During the past 4.6 billion years or so of Earth history, we’ve had water for about 4 billion years. 70 percent of Earth’s surface is water. Water has carved and sculpted the landscape in a dance among geology, hydrology and biology. Our bodies are mostly water. Try living without it sometime.

As the iconic ecologist Aldo Leopold’s son Luna Leopold put it, the health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land. You’d think that by now, we’d have learned to cherish water and think like a watershed.

To the contrary, as the species that is the greatest degenerative disturber of our surroundings, we’ve commodified, trashed and wasted water like there’s no tomorrow. Now that there may be no tomorrow unless we radically change our ways of living on Planet Water, we can turn for solutions to that other famously busy, regenerative disturber of its surroundings: cousin Beaver.

In this age of global weirding where climate disruption has tumbled the Goldilocks effect into unruly surges of too much and too little water, the restoration of beavers offers ancient nature-based solutions to the tangle of challenges bedeviling human civilization. Droughts, floods, soil erosion, climate change, biodiversity loss – you name it, and beaver is on it.

So let’s begin at the beginning. Who is cousin beaver anyway?

Brock Dolman (BD): So we’re really talking about the North American beaver, which is Castor canadensis. They are rodents. So a colony could be 5 to 12 individuals. Beavers slow water, irrigate the land to grow vegetation to grow themselves food, and make a pond deep enough that they can escape predation. Mountain lions, for instance, like to eat beavers.

They’re forest farmers. They’re going to have a main dam where they live in their house, whether that’s a stick house out in the middle like a little island, or burrowed into the bank. And that’s where they spend their day times mostly inside the lodge. They are protected in there. It’s cozy and warm in there. They get to hang out and groom and they might emerge out at sunset. They’re going to go work on the dams, patch things up, they’re managing water, they’re socializing, they’re marking territory. And then they may go harvest food. They’re just busy as beavers.

Host: Brock Dolman co-founded the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Sonoma County, California, where he co-directs its WATER Institute, Permaculture Design Program, and Wildlands Program. He has consulted on regenerative project design and implementation internationally.

Along with Brock, Kate Lundquist co-directs the Center’s WATER Institute as well as its Bring Back the Beaver campaign. She’s a conservationist, educator, ecological artist and wildland tender.

Kate Lundquist (KL): So they go as high up as the Taiga, and now with the melting of the Arctic, they are moving into the Arctic as well, and there’s been a lot of press about that: Beavers are ruining the Arctic! Actually, I don’t think it was beavers that burned all that carbon that is now melting the Arctic, so we’ve got to cut them a little slack. They’re just adaptable and taking advantage of that habitat that’s being freed up. And they go down as far as the Sonoran Desert.

They have these incredible adaptations that make them really, really capable of being in the water a lot. They have these paddled feet so they can swim. They have the tail that is also really good for helping propel themselves in the water. They regulate their body temperature through their tails as well. They have this really cool specialized toe. They need to groom themselves to keep their fur waterproof so that they can stay warm in the water and stay dry when they get out. And they have these incisors that are super key to their ability to cut down the trees and to peel the bark, and to do all of the incredible engineering work that they do.

And they’re unusual as a rodent. Beavers only have one set of kits every year. They keep the young around for up to three years, training them in all the skills of being a beaver, living together and doing this work collectively.

Host: Beaver is a keystone species. “Keystone” is the architectural term for the stone at the top of an arch that holds it in place. Remove it and the arch collapses. In other words, beavers disproportionately benefit many natural processes which in turn support countless other species, including us humans. It’s all about managing life-giving water, for which they are uniquely fitted.

Beavers are crucial for water conservation. Their dams slow water down and spread it out, creating lush wetlands while recharging ground water. They store water against droughts. They prevent violent flooding. They create firebreaks against the now common “firenados” that have beset California and the Western states. They create habitat for countless other species – from fish and turtles to birds. The list goes on.

KL: What those dams end up doing is they act like these sieves. So when you have these floods that are delivering nutrients or sediments, they’re trapping all of that. And the study that was done in 2007 demonstrated that the dams were trapping phosphorous, which is actually a contaminant and causes poor water quality.

They end up buffering many of the impacts that happen with the climate changes that we’re experiencing right now. And so multiple dams, they end up being like speed bumps, and so you get these high-flow events coming in, and it helps slow that water down, shunt it off onto the floodplain, and then basically distribute the energy and de-escalate that energy that comes in with those floodwaters.

But then similarly, in a drought situation, they’re holding that water and keeping it there longer on the landscape into the dry season.

Host: As environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb illustrates in his book, “Eager,” we need to reconfigure our historical conception of what a healthy riverscape looks like. Not every stream fits our English countryside inspired vision of an idyllic mountain brook, free-flowing, fast-moving, and gravel-bottomed. Instead, across the continent beavers created complex, multi-threaded webs of water, patched with swampy wetlands that also built soil and sequestered carbon. Goldfarb estimates that pre-contact North America beaver dams may have impounded an additional 230,000 square miles of water. That’s the size of Arizona and Nevada. Although wetlands comprise just 2 percent of land area, they support 80 percent of biodiversity.

KL: Beavers will dig entire canal systems out to their favorite food sources, especially if it’s like willow thicket. You’ll see this a lot in Sierra meadows where they’ve dammed up the stream in the meadow and that’s created a big wetted area behind the dam, but then there’s these aspen stands, and they love aspen. That’s one of their favorite foods. They will risk their lives for aspen.

And so for them, digging these canals to get to those aspen groves so that they can fell the trees and cut them up, get the bark, get the leaves, and then drag what they want back through these canal systems. But ideally you find these areas where beavers have been living there for generations, and so they just inherit the work of the former colony of their ancestors, and they get to build on it, and it creates these just amazing expanses of wetlands. And some areas will have younger trees because the beaver harvested those, and other areas will have more mature trees, and it just creates this beautiful mosaic.

Host: Think of it as a vast hospitality enterprise – an all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet for the neighborhood. As Goldfarb puts it, “The list of organisms that benefit from beavers is basically a list of organisms in North America.”

In their relentless drive to change their surroundings, beavers are creating conditions conducive to a riotous diversity of life. Northern California’s Smith River, which is the last mighty undammed river of its size in California, is a case in point. Again, Brock Dolman.

BD: It’s a system too big for the beavers to dam across. It’s too deep and too wide, and the beavers are like, there’s plenty of water; we don’t need to dam up. Right? So what they do is they’ll dig a burrow into the bank, and folks got their snorkel gear on, and they would like snorkel up into these little like bank caves and stick their head up into the entrance of this bank burrow and look at all the critters in there, and then see all of this wood, like after the beavers chew off all the bark and—we call it corn on the cob, like you take a willow stick and you strip off that bark. That’s what they’re eating is the cambium layer. Then the stick is either just used there—and then they pile up outside of these. And these folks coined this idea that they were called river reefs.

So the bank lodge, inside the entrance to the bank burrow, they found all kind of coho salmon and steelhead hiding out in there, and then on all those sticks, they found all these types of native critters that were using this complexity like a coral reef. These are what they were calling river reefs. And it was the three-dimensional heterogeneity, the complexity that the beavers created in their refuse pile that increased the carrying capacity, creating conditions conducive for life, for Castor canadensis. Right? And so they’re super cool that way.

Host: Along the Feather River that originates in the Sierra Nevada mountains, a group doing water restoration work discovered sticks that beavers, dating back to around 580 AD, had chewed on. These aquatic creatures had created a landscape of lush mountain meadows over a twelve-hundred-year timeline.

Pre-contact in 1491, before European settlers arrived in North America, there were as many as 400 million beavers on the continent, compared to today’s 10 or 15 million. Lewis and Clark described beaver dams as far as the eye could see, up every tributary of the Missouri Basin.

This was well-known to the millions of First Peoples of North America. Beaver was a revered totem animal for numerous tribes across the continent.

However, as the Haudenosaunee put it, “What your people call resources, our people call relatives.” The European settlers saw this revered creature only as a valuable commodity.

BD: Beavers unfortunately made really good hats, and their castoreum gland has a scent to it that was used for perfumes and flavorings and all kinds of things. And really the arrival and the driver of settlement in North America starting way back in the Northeast in the 1500s and 1600s was the push for beaver fur.

But we also had the Russians working the coast of Sonoma County, and Mendocino and Marin County in the late 1700s– sea otters, fur seals, but also trading for beaver or any other fur they could get on the inland as well. And that process drove beavers to near extinction.

Host: After the fur rush came the devastating Gold Rush that resulted in another beaver massacre. Subsequently, settlers removed beavers to drain the wetlands for agriculture and cattle grazing. The beavers had created rich, carbon-laden soil for farmers to exploit.

By the early 1900s, there were fewer than 1,000 beavers in California. The meadows dehydrated, dryland plants disappeared, lodgepole pines invaded, and after the 1850s the landscape became more arid. Then came the sheep who overgrazed what was left.

By 1911, the state of California tried to reverse the damage and passed a law to protect beavers.

BD: And then the Government of the Division of Wildlife, it was called then – it’s now called California Department of Fish & Wildlife – actually engaged in a process of relocating beavers. And California relocated about twelve hundred beavers, more than any other Western state by a longshot.

In Idaho, in 1948, they started parachuting beavers out of planes, and they had “Geronimo”, the beaver who they dropped to figure out the mechanism on this parachute box when it landed so it would open up and beaver Geronimo could walk away. California, not to be outdone, we had our own beaver parachuting campaign in 1950, into the El Dorado National Forest up kind of eco summit, south of Tahoe, if people know that part of the world. And they did that, imagine, because beaver dams in the mountains save water for fish, wildlife and agriculture.

Host: But by the 1950s, the various agencies, fisheries, and biologists became less interested in restoring beaver populations. Some said beavers were bad for salmon, blocking their passage in rivers. Others claimed the beavers weren’t native to California and were put there only when states were moving beavers around. Perhaps most of all, they complained beavers were a major nuisance to human affairs.

Brock Dolman and Kate Lundquist co-published with a number of other authors two peer-reviewed papers in the California Fish & Game journal that looked at the historic range of beaver in both the Sierra Nevada and the coastal areas of California. They worked with colleagues to gather evidence that indicates beaver are native to much of California.

BD: And the result of those papers is, that was a shift in the perception, I think. The data shows beaver and salmon have coexisted forever. Beaver habitat, beaver dams, salmon, they’re symbiotic. And then all these other benefits. So I think we’ve systematically just been rigorously and as scientifically as possible organizing and addressing the misperceptions in societies, specifically in California, around beaver.

And then what is possible with respect to how to coexist with this very large rodent – 60, 70, 80-pound rodent with really big teeth that chews down trees and builds dams and floods things, and does amazing stuff. But if that’s your driveway or that was your favorite tree or your vineyard, you might not be so happy – or your culvert. So thankfully there’s a lot of affordable, accessible, non-lethal coexistence strategies to live with the beaver and get the benefits of the beaver.

Host: Although today’s beaver populations of about 10 to 15 million are a small fraction of their former glory, they are a relative success story in the restoration of an endangered species. However, there’s no doubt beavers can be a serious nuisance for human activities.

So the question becomes: How can we learn to live with beavers? Because we can’t live without them. More when we return…

I’m Neil Harvey. You’re listening to The Bioneers…

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Indeed, beavers can present serious disruptions to human endeavors. Consequently, Brock Dolman and Kate Lundquist are supporting farmers, landowners and others who are frustrated by busy beavers that mess with their waterways and agricultural lands. They say that human ingenuity combined with beaver mimicry is yielding a beaver peace treaty using non-lethal strategies to both peacefully coexist AND partner with beavers. Again Kate Lundquist.

KL: We really want to ideally keep the beaver where they are, if we can, because that’s going to be the easiest for the beaver, also the easiest for us. Trapping and killing beaver is actually economically not sustainable. They just keep coming back if you have the good habitat and the water.

So figuring out ways to fence them out totally works. You can protect your levies and culverts so they aren’t going to dig into them. You can put a pipe through a beaver dam and you can set the water level that you want that pond to be at – high enough so the beaver sticks around and you get all the benefits, but low enough that it’s not going to flood your property. And we’ve been putting in these devices all over. We’ve been working with water agencies, community service districts, CalTrans, a bunch of different agencies and these are really cost-effective, simple ways, time tested, they’ve been utilized. There are certain states where you can’t trap beaver, and the departments of transportation there have to use these devices.

And so we’re working with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife to rethink their guidance on how they give their permits for landowners to kill beaver. And so what we really want to make sure is that those landowners are given all of the support that they need to implement these non-lethal strategies first before they resort to killing. And hopefully it can be a win-win for everyone that the beaver get to stick around, the landowner gets the support they need, and we still get the beneficial habitat and water resources that the beaver can help provide.

Host: California is the most hydrologically altered state in the union. Much if not most of that design is ecologically illiterate. Climate disruption is causing a systemic stress test. This collision between the state of nature and the nature of the state presents game-changing opportunities to improve our human relationship with water and land by improving our relations with beaver.

KL: We work in a lot of different areas of California, so starting at the ridgeline and really focusing on our montane meadows in particular, because those places act as sponges, and in an era of decreasing snowpack, we really need to invest in restoring those meadows and making sure that they can retain as much water that falls on them later into the season. And so there’s already a huge movement of folks doing this restoration work in mountain meadows. And we really help bring the beaver to that conversation.

A big part of this is beaver mimicry, as well, so putting in these structures in the stream that goes through these meadows that mimic beaver dams. We’re doing a lot of this work, especially in areas where fires have come through and there’s a lot of sediment now being delivered, and ash and whatnot.

We’re working with ranchers and riparian rangelands. It’s amazing how the perception of beaver has been evolving in the west. There are ranchers in Nevada who have been at beaver restoration longer than those in California, who are willing to go on record now saying, 20 years ago “We used to shoot the beaver and now we wouldn’t have a cattle operation without them” and they’re having to save their neighbors who come and literally get water from them and truck it to their operation because they haven’t been able to retain the water in the same way as those who have these beaver complexes.

Host: Other ranchers are having similar experiences that are making them beaver believers. Meanwhile, several California Native American tribes are working to bring back the beaver. Within sight of the spot where the Tule River tribe is preparing for this homecoming is a three-foot-long beaver pictograph. It’s estimated to be 500 to 1,000 years old.

Credit Tule River tribe

KL: They don’t have beaver right now, and because they’re a sovereign nation, the department had no legal standing to refuse their desire to restore beaver. And so they were saying, sure, we’ll help you find the beaver, test the beaver, quarantine, and deliver you the beaver, which is like, huh; that’s good. And so we’re, in the meantime, really trying to set the stage of making good habitat, and so we got to work with the Tribal Natural Resources Department, and just do this amazing collaboration of thinning fuel loads, so taking out a lot of these extra fuels, limbing and thinning, and then stuffing them in the creek and really trapping the sediment.

Host: Thanks to the work of the Bring Back the Beaver Campaign and other advocates across the state, beaver restoration is taking root in riparian rangelands… National Wildlife Refuges, and the Central Valley Duck Clubs and rice-growing fields. It’s also infiltrating urban areas. In downtown Napa, the mayor issued a formal beaver welcome proclamation. In San Luis Obispo, they formed a Beaver Brigade. The town of Martinez annually hosts a wildly popular beaver festival and parade.

KL: Something that could take decades we can actually put in structures and work with the beaver and accelerate it to happen within a decade, and restore these wetlands, both to keep that water on the landscape longer, but then also to mitigate all these other damaging impacts that are happening from climate change.

BD: Those wetlands that the beaver habitat create then can sequester carbon, can create these peat bogs, creating a place for sequestering atmospheric CO2, greenhouse gas emissions, which is a big topic.

And so here we have an organism who works for free, who does it better than we can do it, who doesn’t require permits, who makes babies and trains their own young how to do this, and they slow the flow, they recharge the water, they clean the water, they create fire refugia, they improve the drought resilience, the flood resilience, the fire resilience and make habitat, and people love to go see them. And they’re watchable wildlife.

Host: Much of the momentum for bringing back beavers is coming from the grassroots – from regular folks. Beavers need all the help they can get from citizen scientists, says Kate Lundquist.

KL: We absolutely encourage citizen science, because right now, we don’t actually know how many beaver we have and where they all are. And so through the iNaturalist program, which is run by California Academy of Sciences, there’s a great way that people can make observations. And so you can do it on your Smartphone. And just upload observations of signs of beaver, chewed sticks, dams, the beaver themselves, if you’re lucky enough to find some. They do generally only come out at night or in the sunset and sunrise hours, the crepuscular times – I love that word. So that’s really helpful for us, knowing where the beaver are.

And then also just really getting the word out about these different strategies. So if you know of a neighbor or if you yourself are having problems, if you have a conflict with a beaver, then let us know and we want to connect you with the resources and information of how to implement these coexistence strategies.

Host: That grassroots impetus is also leading to actual state policy change and funding. The campaign has even gotten beavers their own lobbyist.

KL: So just want to remind everyone that we are all keystone species and we, too, have impacts on the ecosystems that we’re living in. And we can disturb them in a way that’s regenerative or we can disturb them in a way that’s destructive. And the more we can learn from our allies like beaver and all of our other allies out there, the more we can show up in a way that is, in fact, more regenerative.

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