TEMECULA, Calif. — They're only rodents--cute ones, granted--and there are so many of them in California that those trapped can no longer be released in the wild.
But plans to kill a bunch of them have stirred emotions, prompting an urgent, 11th-hour campaign to save the creatures.
We're talking beavers. Twenty of them that have taken up lodging in what might seem to be the most appropriate of locations: a lakeside wildlife preserve near here with a 35-acre thicket of cottonwood and willow trees.
But because these beavers are doing what busy beavers do--gnawing down the trees to make their dams and lodges--they are destroying a habitat that's even more valuable for two species of endangered songbirds, wildlife specialists say.
In this conflict, the officials have come down on the side of the endangered species--in this case, the least Bell's vireo and the willow flycatcher--and announced plans to trap and kill the beavers.
No way, no how, are you going to kill beavers, beaver lovers have responded. So in recent weeks--culminating on Wednesday--enough sponsors have agreed to adopt the beavers to all but cancel the death watch.
When trapping begins Monday, the beavers will be taken to places such as the Orange County Zoo at Irvine Regional Park, Moorpark College and wildlife sanctuaries near Lake Tahoe.
Diane Dragotto Williams, who runs Wildhaven, a private, nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation center near Lake Arrowhead, said she hopes to be allowed as many as eight beavers.
If officials with the state Department of Fish and Game approve her request, it will satisfy a dream that Williams has nurtured for years: to reintroduce beavers to the local mountains, albeit in a confined setting.
She remembers how animals flourished in the San Bernardino Mountains when she moved there about 40 years ago as a 9-year-old, before virtually all were poisoned by residents annoyed by their destructive behavior.
"There were beaver in the lakes and deer on the golf courses and flying squirrels in my backyard," she said. "It was like walking through Bambi's forest."
First, Williams must construct a 35-acre beaver enclosure--a project that, with fencing, waterworks and other improvements, may cost several hundred thousand dollars. She has begun a fund-raising campaign to raise the money, but in the meantime, the beavers would be housed at a compound in Temecula that was approved by state officials Tuesday.
The beaver versus birds dilemma was created by man, and dates back about 40 years, when beavers were relocated by wildlife officials--for reasons that now escape memory--to southern Riverside County from elsewhere in the state.
Several years ago, a consortium of federal, state and county wildlife agencies established a preserve alongside Lake Skinner to offset the loss of wildlands where a huge lake is being constructed a few miles to the north by the Metropolitan Water District.
In recent months, wildlife biologists discovered that the beavers were tearing through the cottonwood and willow trees like so many lumberjacks--jeopardizing the habitat used by the birds during their migratory nesting seasons.
The birds are due back next month from their Central and South American haunts, and officials said that if they don't trap the beavers quickly, trappers would be unable to disturb the wooded grounds until fall, when the birds leave. By then, even more crippling damage would have been done to the birds' habitat, they say.
The beavers are even endangering themselves, said Kevin Brennan, a wildlife biologist for the Department of Fish and Game. "The beavers have the potential to eat themselves out of house and home--and they'll take the birds with them," he said. "The longer we wait to initiate trapping, the larger and more complex the problem becomes," including, he noted, the presence of newborn beavers.
The trapped beavers would have to be killed, officials said initially, because the law does not allow them to be released back into California's wildlands, where the beavers are considered overpopulated.
Some organizations oppose the beaver removal plan, contending that not enough study has been conducted to conclude that the beavers are a hazard to the endangered birds.
"We need to see some validation that the beavers are indeed causing a threat to other species," said John Hadidian, director of urban wildlife protection for the Humane Society. "We're not convinced there's really a problem, and because these are very complicated and complex [ecological] systems, we think it's a better idea to wait than to trap them now."
But Jud Monroe, spokesman for the nature conservancy commission that oversees the preserve, said local biologists are convinced that the time to evict the beavers is now.
He understands why the trap-and-kill solution touched nerves.
"We tell our children stories about foxes and bunnies and owls--and beavers," Monroe said. "We personify these animals and they become our childhood friends."