Beaver Fever! Sherri Tippe gives a dam about Colorado's beaver population

A beaver in its natural habitat.
A beaver in its natural habitat. Getty Images
The roar of our all-terrain vehicles sends birds and chipmunks fleeing as we grind our way up the mountainside. We are high above the Roaring Fork Valley, skirting the edge of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area. The view is spectacular, a jaw-dropping vista of craggy peaks hovering over wildflower-studded meadows and thick stands of aspen, but my attention is elsewhere.

Like June Cleaver, I am worried about the beaver.

There are six of the little buggers in three cages, stacked to the fore and aft of the Honda ATV that I am, at this peculiar moment, just learning how to operate. Two adults, two yearlings, two kits — more than 200 pounds of fur and orange teeth and enormous paddle-shaped tails, reeking of more musk than a fifteen-year-old boy after his morning blast of Axe. They smell like...well, like big, wet rodents drying in the sun.

Nocturnal by nature, my cargo is unaccustomed to the blaze of the midday heat. They are not happy about the lurching and pitching of the ATV as we negotiate the steep, rutted trail. They express their distress by shifting nervously in their cages, shitting copiously and looking for a way out. I am wondering how I will drive while fending off a crazed gang of giant rats on a prison break when I hear a soothing voice behind me.

"How are you doing, baby?" Sherri Tippie asks. "You are so beautiful!"

These endearments are directed not at me, but at the beaver, which must endure a few more minutes of this alarming final stage of their 200-mile journey to a new home. Tippie trapped this family in a desolate stretch of Sand Creek in Aurora a couple of days ago and has been chatting with them regularly ever since. People think it's crazy for her to talk to wild animals — and to urge other people to do the same — but she insists that hearing a friendly human voice helps to calm a beaver.

She ought to know. Over the past 25 years, Tippie has probably live-trapped, fed, cuddled, relocated, observed, defended, conversed with, serenaded and otherwise saved from annihilation more beaver than any person on earth. Her expertise has been achieved through long hours in muddy, trash-choked creeks and endless struggles with know-nothing bureaucrats, smug exterminators and homeowner associations that view beaver as an invasive species. In 1987, when Tippie first started Wildlife 2000, her grassroots organization dedicated to beaver rescue, she was ridiculed by wildlife officials as a rank amateur; now members of those same agencies seek her out for advice and beg her to conduct seminars on how to trap safely.

"Sherri's just an old hippie," says Shayne Clayson, a volunteer who's worked with her often in recent years. "She is so passionate about this animal. I used to think she was one of the best in the country, but there are people all over the world calling her."

Once slaughtered by the millions for their pelts and denounced as pests that gnawed valuable timber and clogged up irrigation ditches with their infernal dams, beaver have been virtually eradicated from many North American waterways. Killing beaver on private property in Colorado doesn't require any kind of permit — even though they are now widely recognized as a keystone species in the arid West, a species that plays a critical role in establishing and maintaining the conditions of a particular ecosystem.

Beaver dams improve water quality, preventing erosion, trapping silt and reducing downstream flooding. Their activities also create habitat for other wildlife, transforming a racing but lifeless stream into a tranquil, rich refuge for fish, birds and vegetation. (Their ponds even help cut down on mosquitoes by attracting birds, fish and other insects that feed on mosquito larvae.) Ranchers and wildlife agencies in several states are now seeking to reintroduce beaver to ailing watersheds in an effort to forestall drought and improve forage for wildlife as well as livestock.

Tippie's work has played a major role in reshaping public attitudes about the industrious creature. She began by rescuing beaver that would otherwise be liquidated. Now she relocates dozens of beaver every summer, moving them from unsuitable habitat, such as suburban drainage ditches, to high-country ranches and wildlife areas whose managers are clamoring for better water storage and wetlands. And she works with municipalities across the state, including Denver and Aurora, to try to find solutions that allow beaver to continue to operate in urban areas.

"I'll argue with God," Tippie says. "And I'll put my record as a successful live beaver trapper against anybody. These animals are being 'managed' — killed — by people who know nothing about them. It's so aggravating."

A crew shooting a documentary about beaver rescuers has dubbed Tippie the Beaver Whisperer, a term she loathes. She's also been described as the Jane Goodall of beaver, but that's not right, either. Goodall received formal training in primate behavior and has a doctoral degree. Tippie was trained as a hairdresser, and most of what she knows about Castor canadensis she learned firsthand, by trapping beaver and watching them at work.

"Sherri has educated herself, and she truly knows what she's doing," says Delia Malone, an ecologist with Colorado State University's Natural Heritage Program who's worked with Tippie on a few relocation missions. "A lot of professional wildlife biologists get a bit removed from their job. Sherri loves what she does, and she does it because she loves it. She doesn't have a strictly objective approach. She's very subjective, which I think is wonderful."

That subjective approach is in full swing as our ATV reaches the top of the ridge and our destination: a large, well-shaded pond. Eager as she is to release her captives, Tippie first gives the area a careful inspection, like a mom sizing up the dorm where her darling child is going to spend the next four years. Beaver are vegetarians and have been known to consume all sorts of shoots, fruit and tree bark, but they prefer willow, aspen and cottonwood trees. The willow supply is a little further from the pond than Tippie would like, but there seem to be enough young aspen in the area to compensate, and more than enough trees for the beaver to start building a dam and a lodge and stashing caches of food for the winter.

Tippie and the ranch manager carry the cages to the edge of the pond and open them. The beaver waddle eagerly into the water. "Go, babies! Go!" Tippie urges.

Connie Harvey watches with a grin as they swim off. A prominent environmental activist and the owner of the ranch, Harvey's been aiming to get beaver into this pond for some time. She's seen what they can do at her house outside of Aspen, on Maroon Creek. She's had to fence some mature aspen she wants to protect from their teeth, and she once had to wear hip waders to cross her yard, but having beaver as neighbors has made the area much more interesting.

"We're not trying to have a manicured place," she says. "I like a little wilderness, and the beavers like it, too. They make it so nice and cool there, even on the hottest summer days. They're amazing."

Harvey and Tippie watch the six new arrivals explore the pond, checking out its possibilities. After a few minutes, one of the adults climbs out on the opposite bank and engages in some quick freshening up, wielding a special claw on the webbed back foot that's used for grooming as well as picking splinters from between chisel-shaped incisors.

"I think they're going to like it here," Harvey says.

"They're loving it," Tippie says. "They're in heaven."


Two centuries ago, before the arrival of the trappers and the miners, Colorado's mountain streams and rivers looked quite different from the way they look today. They were not in such a hurry to scour out everything in their path. Their velocity was slowed by a seemingly endless series of terraced ponds and dams, serene pools that attracted a tremendous diversity of waterfowl and fish. Their channels were deeper, their flow more uniform, with greater stability in drought and flood years. They were surrounded by lush grasses, wetlands and trees rather than skimpy, sun-baked vegetation and rocks.

One of the key factors in the change is the removal of beaver from the area, Colorado State University professor Ellen Wohl notes in Virtual Rivers, her book about the state's altered waterways. Without beaver, she writes, "the rivers have become more efficient conveyors of sediment but less-diverse ecosystems."

"Even very large rivers, like the Colorado, had beaver on them," adds ecologist Malone. "There's been a dramatic decline in our riparian wetlands, for a lot of reasons, but one of them is clearly the lack of beaver. In the long term, they're essential to the health of the ecological system."

Prior to European settlement, an estimated 60 million beaver were at work in North America; researchers believe there may be just a tenth that number today. In major river systems such as the Upper Mississippi and Missouri River basins, the reduction has been even more drastic, with beaver ponds now found in barely 1 percent of the acreage they covered in 1600.

In Colorado, trappers and settlers waged a ferocious war against the critters for more than a century. Dams were torn out, creeks diverted for irrigation, mining and other industries, food sources turned into fuel and housing. The beaver themselves were turned into hats and wraps.

In recent decades, the beaver population has recovered to some extent — but only in areas where there's still adequate habitat. Even today, people who want to reintroduce beaver to their historic range are often confronted by neighbors exhibiting what Sherri Tippie calls "the golf course mentality," people who don't want beaver messing with trees or well-regulated waterways.

"They don't realize that beaver and trees evolved together over thousands of years," Tippie says. "The pruning of their teeth can actually stimulate the growth of the tree, but they don't know that. They just want it to look perfect. They think that what it looks like now is what it's always looked like and should look like. But nature is supposed to grow and ebb and flood and dry out, do that magical dance."

Although she has a bad knee these days and sometimes walks with a cane, Tippie knows a great deal about nature's dance. In a previous incarnation, she was an acid-dropping go-go girl who "danced with a message," she says. But she was still searching for a cause.

She was born in Oregon, the Beaver State. Her mother was the youngest of eleven, her father a handsome drifter. They met at a dance and married soon after. Mom had Rh-negative blood, which can lead to great complications in pregnancy. The couple had five children. Sherri was the only one who survived.

In the early 1950s, the family moved to Colorado — first to Englewood, then to a house on South Pearl Street in Denver. Sherri loved to catch nightcrawlers for her bus-driver father, who often took her fishing. She didn't like seeing the fish suffer and decided to do something about it. "He would put them up on the bank, and if they weren't dead, I would put them back in the water," she recalls. "That was one of the only times he hit me."

She struggled in school, academically and socially. But she had a knack for tap dancing, and that eventually led to jobs dancing in clubs. Sometimes that meant gigs at geezer joints like Sid King's Crazy Horse Bar, the raunchy burlesque house on Colfax; sometimes it meant working with rock bands, taking LSD and dancing in a bikini to "Inna Gadda Da Vida" at a Holiday Inn packed with college students in Laramie, Wyoming.

"I danced at Sid's, but I would not take my top off," she says. "I was small, and I had no tits, anyway. I thought people should connect to you because of your dancing. I believed what the music said, that whole thing in the '60s about working together and being able to trust people."

She went to Hollywood, one of the epicenters of the whole '60s thing. She dated Jimmy Griffin, the singer from Bread. She dated Gabe Kaplan, years before Welcome Back, Kotter. She danced for B.B. King and for the Leather Souls, a precursor of Three Dog Night. It was an exciting time for dancers with a message.

"You could go into a club and sit down with the Yardbirds," she says. "I sat on Jeff Beck's lap."

But sooner or later the music stops. Tippie returned to Colorado and went from dancing to being a hairdresser. (She still cuts hair part-time at the Arapahoe County jail, where a loyal customer base of prisoners makes short work of anyone who attempts off-color jokes about the Beaver Lady.) She racked up two failed marriages, decided to get sterilized at thirty and now lives with her elderly mother.

"I love being by myself," she says. "All men are is extra work."

Yet Tippie never lost her flower-power idealism about saving the planet. In the Reagan era, with Secretary of the Interior James Watt openly hostile to environmental causes and Anne Gorsuch dismantling the EPA and declaring war on coyotes, Tippie became closely allied with Cleveland Amory's Fund for Animals.

"Cleveland and I had some big conflicts," Tippie recalls. "I wanted to get involved in advocating for wildlife. But if you're anti-hunting — and Cleveland was — you can't get your foot in the door with state wildlife agencies."

Tippie discovered she had more in common with hunters than she'd realized — including a mutual aversion to professional trappers. Hunters would prove to be a vital constituency in several successful campaigns she worked on, including the 1992 drive to ban the spring bear hunt in Colorado.

"I'm not opposed to hunting," she says. "I like hunters; I don't like sportsmen. The animal deserves every bit of respect and reverence you can give it, because it's giving its life to feed you. You should be able to kill it quickly and not waste any part of it. And you should learn about the animal. It shouldn't be easy for you to kill it, because killing should never be easy."

She sighs, thinking about her late father and a deer carcass he brought home one night on his bumper. "I like to think he was an ethical hunter," she says. "The only way I can kill an animal is if it's hurt. If I had to kill an elk to eat, I'd be sucking on rocks."

One day in 1985, Tippie was scrubbing her kitchen floor when she caught a news broadcast about a beaver colony along the High Line Canal that had been chewing up trees on an Aurora golf course and was targeted for extermination. Beaver had not been on Tippie's radar screen at that point — "I was really into coyotes and mountain lions, the big sexy animals," she says now — but the report filled her with indignation.

"I had no intention of getting involved beyond getting somebody to live-trap and relocate those beaver," she says. "But nobody else would do it."

Tippie contacted the Colorado Division of Wildlife about borrowing some traps. The proposal was received icily. She decided to take a reporter with her when she went to pick up the traps. The officer gave her a sour, skeptical appraisal and returned with two large, heavy steel contraptions. The man refused to offer any advice about how they might be used.

"Do you want to run through this with me?" Tippie asked, trying to conceal her dismay.

The man patted her on the shoulder. "Oh, you'll figure it out," he said — and walked away.

Tippie refused to back down. She lugged the traps back to her apartment, read the instructions, practiced with the mechanism, then hauled them to the High Line. She caught two beaver that night.

She had no place to put them. She carried them in her arms into the Denver Art Museum to show them to her mother, who worked there. Then she gave them the run of her kitchen and bathtub. Within a few days, she'd made arrangements to release them in Rocky Mountain National Park.


Turning off Chambers Road in Aurora, Tippie steers her Jeep onto a recreational trail behind a bank of condos and pulls up a few feet from West Toll Gate Creek. A beaver dam spans the length of the murky water, not far from an abandoned shopping cart and other debris piled in a dead-tree snag. Volunteer Matthew Niffen is waiting on the bank to help unload her traps.

Tippie shows Niffen how to set the traps and lace them with willow branches snipped from nearby trees. Then they wade into the bilious brown water, Tippie directing where the traps are to be placed along the banks, while thunder rumbles through the lowering sky and a light rain begins to fall.

Watching her work, it's hard to imagine that Tippie ever had anything less than complete confidence in her trapping abilities. Or that she still has a deep-rooted fear of nasty creeks like this one.

"I'm scared to death of water where I can't see the bottom," she says. "But for some reason, when I'm trapping, I can get right in."

Trappers use a lure made from the castor gland, found in both male and female beaver. The scent attracts other beaver, which are highly territorial and keen on investigating any newcomers in the vicinity of their lodge. The willow branches that Tippie places in the traps provides her captives with something to nibble until she returns the next morning.

Although she hasn't kept an exact count, Tippie figures she's trapped around a thousand beaver over the past 26 years. She has lost only two of them, to a flash flood that swept through the area before she could return. She's a fanatic about returning to her traps as quickly as possible the next day and getting the beaver to cages covered by tarps in her back yard — with plenty of water and food and bags of melting ice dripping coolly down on them — until they can be relocated.

"It's harder on me, I think, than it is on them," she says. "I am so dead by the end of my season, I don't know what day it is. I get a lot of people who want to help me, but most of them just want to watch."

Tippie has pulled beaver from culverts and drainage ditches all over Aurora. If the habitat's good, she prefers to leave them where they are, but some of the places they turn up in Aurora are unsafe and lack reliable food sources. She has a contract with the city's stormwater division, which pays her a set fee for every beaver removed as well as an hourly rate. She undertakes each mission with the understanding that she won't stop until she's caught every member of the colony and the traps turn up empty. People who've worked with her say she has an uncanny instinct for gauging just how many beaver she's dealing with.

Chris Gasser, who's trapped extensively with Tippie in recent years, recalls a particularly difficult mission in a steep-banked area along Sand Creek not long ago. They managed to catch four kits, two yearlings and two adults, a large clan by beaver standards. "We got home, and Sherri said, 'There's another kit out there,'" Gasser recalls. "I asked her why she thought that, and she just looked at me and got a twinkle in her eye. We set up the traps, and the next morning there was one more kit. How she knew that, I don't know."

Tippie has nothing but praise for Aurora for its commitment to her and to live trapping. ("We try to keep them in place," says city spokesman Greg Baker. "We like what they do.") Some other municipalities and suburban water districts address their beaver issues by turning to professional trappers, a mercenary breed she describes with unbridled contempt.

"They believe in trapping for money and fun," she says. "They would love to see me drop off the end of the world, so when you call with a beaver problem, they can go out and kill them. They trap for the City of Lakewood. They use the same traps I do, but they throw the beaver in the water and let them drown. It takes twenty minutes or more to drown a beaver, and there's considerable stress and anxiety in that kind of death."

Even some of her most loyal supporters wish Tippie was a little less outspoken in her views on exterminators, dunderhead wildlife officers and others. But that's just not who she is. "She's the most ethical person I've ever known," Gasser says. "And one-minded — is that a good word? Just totally focused on the beaver. I wouldn't say she's high on the diplomatic approach, but I have seen her do that."

As Tippie sees it, the average beaver has much to recommend it over the average human. Beaver are monogamous and mate for life. Their reproduction rate diminishes if the food supply isn't adequate to support a large colony. (Conversely, the birth rate accelerates in areas where predation is strong, which, Tippie contends, makes kill-trapping a self-defeating exercise.) The families are matriarchal; the mother supervises dam and lodge construction while the father brings shoots and leaves to young kits. When the youngsters reach the age of two, they go off to find a mate and a place of their own.

They are also surprisingly docile. When Tippie first started trapping, she was handling the animals the way no biologist would, picking them up and hugging them. For the most part, they responded well, although she's been bitten a couple of times. ("If you're messing with something wild and you get bit, just shut up about it," she says.) And if they pee on your clothes, she discovered, the urine leaves an ineradicable fluorescent-orange stain. A picture of her cheek-to-cheek with a beaver once hung in a meeting room of the Colorado Wildlife Commission, but one official took it down over concerns that it "conveyed the wrong message" about wildlife.

Tippie's relationship with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, now known as Parks & Wildlife, has improved since her first trapping efforts, but still has its rocky moments. Some officers are shocked by her casual approach to wild animals. (Tippie's home has been a short-term refuge not only for beaver, but also snakes, peacocks, even a baby cougar; she once transported a female lion with a dislocated shoulder in the back of a Ford Taurus.) Landowners seeking to reintroduce beaver must first get permission from the agency, and a few district managers have nixed plans for relocations done by Tippie, for reasons never explained to her.

"I get turned down a lot," she says. "I've met some of the best people at the Division of Wildlife, but some of the new people there don't like what I'm doing. So many landowners want beaver, but the division says no."

Fortunately, Tippie already has a new home lined up for the beaver she's trapping today. It's a ranch on the southeast flank of Pikes Peak that's been in the family of Mark Johnson, president of Johnson Storage and Moving, for eighty years. Beaver were active in the area, known as the East Beaver Creek Valley, until predators or disease wiped them out a couple of decades ago. Johnson has already taken a family of four from Tippie in an effort to improve the water table, fishing and vegetation.

"We're quite proud to have maintained a pretty pristine environment," Johnson says of the ranch. "But without beaver, the valley has become somewhat willow-choked. When the dam's abandoned, all this tremendously fertile soil behind the dam washes away. We need the beaver back."

It takes Tippie and Niffen only a few minutes to set three traps at the edge of turbid Toll Gate Creek. By tomorrow morning there will be three beaver in them. The rest of this family of six is already at her house, waiting for the trip south.


A few weeks ago, Rick Spowart, the state's district wildlife manager for Estes Park, invited Tippie to tour a series of beaver dams and ponds along Fish Creek, on the southwest side of town. Although the creek winds mostly through private property, the beavers' work is only a few feet from a major road and a public right-of-way, where the Estes Valley Recreation and Parks District plans to build a 2.4-mile, $850,000 compacted gravel trail for bikes, pedestrians and horses. One of the dams, in fact, stretches a few feet into the path of the proposed trail.

By the time Tippie arrived, the meeting had been moved to the Estes Park Town Hall to accommodate public interest. What had started out as an informal gathering of Spowart, Tippie and the contractor had mushroomed into a hearing that drew dozens of locals, many worried about the beaver being chased from their homes by, ironically, a project financed largely through lottery proceeds from Great Outdoors Colorado. EVRPD executive director Stan Gengler was eager to reassure them.

"We don't want to see the beaver moved," Gengler said. "We think they are an environmental asset to the trail."

When it was her turn to speak, Tippie stood up in a T-shirt that said "Dam It!" and stressed the need to come up with a "gentle" way to proceed. "Bulldozers scare the snot out of me," she declared. "These beaver are exactly where they belong."

The dam that crosses the trail is some distance from the lodge and the main pond, she pointed out, so it shouldn't be difficult to come up with a solution that wouldn't disrupt the beaver activity. Perhaps, she suggested, signs could be put out to inform trail users about the beaver and urge them to keep away from the dams. By the time she finished, the contractor was considering placing a cantilevered walkway on pylons over the dam, as well as fencing and signs to keep people from trespassing on the beaver habitat.

Such a chain of events would have been hard to imagine a few years ago: that a state wildlife officer would think it was a good idea to consult Tippie; that the fate of a few feet of beaver dam would become cause for public concern in Estes Park; that the people behind the bulldozers would be so eager to appease the folks who usually stand in front of them. Tippie isn't used to cooperation on that scale.

Yet her work is increasingly about building such alliances. Much of her energy in recent years has been devoted to persuading government agencies and property owners to leave the beaver and their projects in place. Last May she supervised the installation of a "Castor Master" in a magisterial beaver dam spanning Bear Creek, just off Hampden and Harlan in southwest Denver.

A Castor Master is a large section of polyethylene pipe that's inserted into a dam beneath the water level and caged at each end, to keep the beaver from plugging it up. It insures a certain flow of water from the pond and discourages the beaver from building the dam any higher. The contraption is one of several inexpensive flow devices that make it easier for humans and beaver to coexist. The one on Bear Creek was the second that Denver Parks and Recreation has approved, and a team of Tippie's volunteers, including Clayson and Gasser, struggled alongside Parks and Rec ecologist Ashley DeLaup to make sure it was properly placed. Water officials from two other counties observed the process and picked up additional information from Tippie, who hopes to see more of the devices used in other conflict areas.

The Castor Master installed that day seems to be meeting the needs of the beaver as well as those of the Urban Drainage and Flood Control District, which likes to see the flow in Bear Creek unimpeded. "A lot of dams got flooded out this summer, but not this one," DeLaup says.

A wildlife camera installed on the lodge has captured a motley procession of visitors in the area: coyotes, red fox, raccoons, geese, muskrats. The site presents a terrific opportunity for field trips for Bear Creek High School students and others who want to study a mini-ecosystem, DeLaup says: "A dam like this creates a new urban wildlife viewing area. It also allows us to take advantage of some of the things that make beaver a keystone species. They're raising the water table, so we'll have more plant growth. And as they cut down trees, you'll start to get an understory, a whole new type of habitat."

When DeLaup was hired, one of the first people the city naturalist insisted she meet was Tippie. The two have discussed flow devices for several other Denver-area dams.

"Sherri has the time and the energy and the focus for making a positive impact, and I really respect that," DeLaup says. "I wouldn't say she and I agree on everything, but that's okay. We bring different things to the table and look for solutions."

Thanks to Tippie's efforts, beaver are thriving in urban areas where they've been seldom seen in decades. They're also making a comeback in places where man and natural disasters have done their best to denude the landscape. Ecologist Malone recalls coming across a former mining dump in Gilpin County that had been painstakingly reclaimed by the new owner; one of the major factors was beaver brought in by Tippie. "It's a spectacular wildlife refuge now," she says. "The beaver went to work and brought the wetlands back. It can happen pretty rapidly, in a couple of years."

Beaver were active in the Fourmile Creek area until the devastating Hayman fire in 2002. Rancher Peter Waas recently received two adult beaver from Tippie in hopes of healing the erosion-scarred land, particularly a spring-fed pond that feeds into the creek. "We underwent three or four years of high runoff after the fire," Waas says. "Any time it rained, it would flood in Fourmile. We don't look at rain as we did a few years ago."

Since the beaver arrived this summer, "the water level is starting to creep up," he notes. "The signs are good that we may be able to keep them. It's going to boil down to whether they have enough of a food source."

Back in the late 1980s, beaver had mysteriously disappeared from the area around Bill Betz's cabin in the Gore Range. Betz, a renowned neurobiologist who teaches at the University of Colorado Denver, contacted Tippie. The impact of the beaver on the area over the past twenty years has been dramatic.

"They've had a huge, huge effect," Betz says. "When they disappear, the ponds don't last long. You're left with just a stream running downhill, and everything in the pond — the fish, the insects, the insectivorous birds — they're gone, too."

Having beaver around brought back the habitat, and also added what Betz calls "the enjoyment of watching a beaver at work."

"They come out at dusk," he says. "The first thing the adults do is inspect the dam. Then they eat a while, and when it gets dark, they bring out the kits. In the fall, they cut willows and stick them in the mud. They're just an extraordinary animal. And it's just a shame when they disappear."

That's not going to happen if Tippie can help it. If she's not boosting a beaver's self-esteem on a trip into the wilderness, then she's spreading the good word about beaver as habitat generators to a crowd of Utah wildlife professionals. Or wading into a filthy stream somewhere, or haranguing a golf-course operator. Or taking a break from the arduous installation of a Castor Master to field questions from curious passersby, assuring them that the felling of trees slows down once a dam is built and that beaver, contrary to myth, are not responsible for the spread of giardia in mountain streams. ("I had giardia for my thirtieth high-school reunion," she tells one astonished stranger, "and I lost so much weight I looked great!") Or introducing people who want to build their own Castor Masters and Beaver Deceivers to her step-by-step handbook, Working With Beaver for Better Habitat Naturally!

"People want to do what I'm doing," she says. "The State of Washington now wants to relocate beaver. But who are they going to let do it? Trappers."

She hurls the word like it was an obscenity. If they don't kill the animals outright, she figures, professional trappers still won't talk to them. They won't care about keeping the families intact.

They have no idea what it takes, what it means to put your heart and soul into the work. How you end up exhausted and soaked and happy all at the same time, grateful to be as busy as a big, wet rodent, building a home and a refuge and storing up treasures for the long winter to come.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast