Beavers, back on tribal land after 100 years, could aid California's fragile ecosystem

A beaver is seen behind a log.
A beaver takes stock of his new habitat after being released at the Tule River Reservation in Tulare County. (Krysten Kellum)

Beavers are precious to the Tule River Indian Tribe. They are woven into the California tribe's stories and appear in ancient pictographs painted by ancestors on the walls of a rock shelter in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

But when nine of the furry rodents recently slid out of crates and slipped into waterways on the Tule River Reservation, they returned to a habitat where they hadn't been seen in nearly a century.

A family of beavers — three adults, one subadult and three babies, known as "kits" — were released into the South Fork Tule River watershed on June 12, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said. Two other beavers were released into Miner Creek on June 17.

The department conducted the releases in the foothills of the southern Sierra in partnership with the tribe, whose 55,356-acre reservation is based in Porterville, Calif., in Tulare County.

Beavers were a common sight in parts of the Sierra before the arrival of Europeans, but by the 20th century, their numbers had been decimated by fur trappers and eradication efforts.

A decade ago, tribal leaders called for the animals to be returned, driven by traditional Indigenous knowledge about beavers' importance to the ecosystem — and inspired by the 500-to-1,000-year-old beaver images left at the Yokuts village site known as Painted Rock.

In 2022, the Fish and Wildlife Department received state funding to start a restoration program to prepare sites in California for the semiaquatic animals.

Beavers aid the environment by building dams that help to keep landscapes well-hydrated and more resilient in droughts and wildfires. That enhanced water retention could also protect the Tule River Indian Tribe's drinking water supply — 80% of which comes from the river's watershed, Fish and Wildlife said.

Read more: Yes, beavers can help stop wildfires. And more places in California are embracing them

“We’ve been through numerous droughts over the years — we were wondering how we can conserve, save water, get water here on our lands,” said Kenneth McDarment, a Tule River Tribe member and former tribal councilman, in a Fish and Wildlife statement. “The answer was in our pictographs.”

California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said the beaver program was the result of an unprecedented effort by the state to not only steward the environment but also support tribal sovereignty.

Elders from the Tachi Yokut and Tubatulabal tribes joined an elder from the Tule River Indian Tribe in a blessing ceremony to ready the habitat for the beavers' arrival in June.

In video captured by the Fish and Wildlife Department, some of the beavers, which were brought in from state-owned land in Merced County, can be seen checking out their new digs in the 6,000-foot-elevation Sierra meadowland.

The slicked-back fur on the beavers' heads and backs glistens in the sun as the agile swimmers slice the murky waters past submerged evergreen leaves, drifting twigs and shrubs. Possible construction materials?

Beavers released last fall by Fish and Wildlife in partnership with the Indigenous-led Maidu Summit Consortium in Plumas County wasted no time building lodges to live in and dams to protect themselves from predators and to store food, a department spokeswoman said. Today those structures, in the tribal community known as Tásmam Koyóm, are large and well-developed.

Fish and Wildlife officials intend to release more beavers into the Tule River watershed in the coming months and years.

“Our past is one where we treated these animals and others as varmints, and our culture over time ran them off the landscape," said Charlton H. Bonham, department director. "That can’t be our future.”

Read more: California will help return tribal lands as part of the historic Klamath River restoration

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.