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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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."

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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