Longform

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

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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.

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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.

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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