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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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