Happy as a Beaver in a Rainy Mountain Meadow

Beaver, Norden Lake, CA  | © George Lamson

Beaver hard at work on Norden Lake near Bear Valley, CA | © George Lamson

Despite the long, severe drought we are experiencing in California I believe there is always room for a little hope and optimism. Some of that came to us recently in the way of badly needed rain. For a couple days before the blue skies returned last week the rain came down proverbially by the bucketful. High in the Sierra, the community of Tahoe City reported its ninth largest 24-hour total rainfall on historic record.

This drought is far from over, yet I remain interested in and hopeful through facts like this because of work we do identifying and assessing the health of high Sierra meadow environments. Many of the meadows we work in are the important headwaters for streams and rivers that so much life and so many Californians depend on. Due to this importance we and our restoration partners have placed meadows as a high priority to focus our work.

The drought has brought a rare opportunity for us to see some of these meadows in mid-winter without snow. We recently visited Bear Valley, a broad meadow near the headwaters of the Bear River in California’s Sierra Mountains. When we arrived we were surprised and pleased to see a work partner of ours, the beaver, had also taken this mid-winter opportunity to attend to important work.

We consider beaver potential work partners because they also endeavor to create ways for meadows to be more naturally full of water. Even in non-drought years many of the meadows we see appear now to be drier than they have been historically. Much of this can be traced to changes people have made in them such as laying roads, digging ditches and overgrazing.

Each of these disturbances can alter how water flows into and through a meadow. Many, but not all, mountain meadows are naturally wet for much of the year. At times water can be found in great abundance above and below ground in a healthy meadow. It is commonly thought that an imbalance in the overall health of a mountain meadow becomes apparent when the anticipated pattern of the surface waters’ flow begins to change. This can occur even in non-drought years and might indicate the meadow is ‘suffering’. One sign we focus on becomes apparent in the stream channel. In a healthy meadow, when water is plentiful, it will spread broadly outside the channel and move slowly through the entire meadow environment from top to bottom. These conditions provide opportunities for all kinds of life to thrive. Beaver not only thrive there, but through building dams they slow and spread the water which helps create or mimic the natural conditions which in turn will benefit other plants and animals who find home in a healthy meadow.

Now that the prospect of rain seems a little brighter in the Sierra I plan to return to Bear Meadow to see how our partner the beaver is fairing with her work. I hope you will return to follow the beaver’s progress in restoring the health to this source of some of our State’s precious store of water.