Voyage of the Dammed

Nature’s engineers — and environmental heroes — make a comeback

  • Beavers' "precision logging" of aspen trees into upper Tasha Creek in Fishlake National Forest, Utah.

    Photo courtesy Mary O'Brien
  • A newly constructed beaver dam, made possible because only sheep -- not cattle -- graze along the streams. Mary O'Brien of Grand Canyon Trust is working toward getting cows removed from the entire 5-mile stretch Tasha Creek, to make way for more dams.

    Photo courtesy Mary O'Brien
  • The beavers are back in Dry Creek on Charlie Ernst's 5,700 acres in central Oregon. The creek used to run with water only a few days in the spring. Now, with 20 beaver dams, it runs for months.

    Josh Thompson, Wasco County
  • Felix Aripa, a Coeur d'Alene tribal elder

    Kevin Taylor
  • Michael Pollock, with NOAA Fisheries

    Kevin Taylor
  • Mary O'Brien, with Grand Canyon Trust

    Tim Clark

Page 3

Sherri Tippie, a Colorado prison hairdresser who's become a national expert on live-trapping beaver, brings a Hancock trap (it resembles a chain-link suitcase) from the trunk of her rental car. She sets it on the carpet, tugs off a shoe -- "You might want to move," she tells one person in the front row -- and bang! springs the trap.

"I used to live-trap in a bikini. I'm heavy now, but I used to look pretty good," Tippie says -- and she has the pictures to prove it.

Like many people, she says, she used to focus mainly on "the big, sexy animals like cougar and wolf." Then one day, she saw a TV news report that beaver were going to be killed for munching on trees at an Aurora, Colo., golf course. Tippie rounded up some journalists and marched down to the state wildlife office to demand a less lethal solution. A wildlife agent, perhaps trying to get rid of her, hauled out some big box traps and told her she could do it herself. "It was pretty intimidating," she says. But she read the instructions and trapped two beaver the next day.

That was 24 years ago, and Tippie still live-traps and relocates beaver. Increasingly, however, she encourages landowners to coexist with beaver. She's formed a grassroots group called Wildlife 2000 to demonstrate, online and on site, devices and techniques to help resolve conflicts.

"Beaver are where they should be, doing what they should be doing," Tippie says. "Over time, I realized we should learn to live with the beaver where they are. I'd like to relocate some of the people."

Schillie, the Forest Service analyst based in Denver, used to work in the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C., focusing on carbon and climate change policy, "thinking about how do we adapt to the projected impacts, and thinking of low-tech solutions." When he moved West last year, it hit him: "Beaver habitat."

In the last decade, catastrophic wildfires, driven by climate change, have incinerated some Rocky Mountain watersheds so intensely that the soil now actually repels water. In addition to losing vegetation, the ground is "becoming hydrophobic -- less permeable to water," Schillie says. This has caused erosion and severe washoff of soils into drinking-water reservoirs.

In the watershed hit by the 2002 Hayman Fire in central Colorado, Denver water utilities have "built a couple of fairly large rock dams just above the reservoirs that stop sediment and allow water to pass through. Then they come in behind the dam and dredge the sediment and haul it away," Schillie says. The dredging must be done frequently, he adds. "I think you can go higher up the slope and have more effect by creating beaver dams. You reduce velocity and at the same time capture sediment." So Schillie has just submitted a proposal to headquarters for a demonstration project. "We see a lot of value" in beaver restoration, he says.

Even here at Liberty Lake, there are benefits and conflicts. Beaver have returned in recent years. But when their dams flooded some popular hiking trails, residents took matters into their own hands, poaching out the animals and using rakes to hack the dams apart. BiJay Adams, lake protection manager for the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District, convinced the beaver's opponents to back off, because the animals were restoring -- for free -- a water-filtering marsh, work that would have cost the district $500,000. The trails could easily be relocated, he assured them.

It's a tougher sell a few miles away, at Sacheen Lake, where beaver have created what one state wetlands regulator calls "beaver heaven" at the lake's outlet. Frustrated residents are threatening to dynamite the dams because the slower release of water is raising the lake level, threatening homes and septic systems, and high-water wave action is eroding the shore.

The weather fits the conference's primordial longings: a sky woolly gray and rumpled, so saturated with moisture that it falls all day as rain or hail and even snow, with flashes of lightning and thunder.

The prevailing winds blow away the storm just in time for a scheduled evening hike into an adjacent county park to see a series of four beaver dams. Sunlight gains extra brilliance as it slants across the scrubbed air. Raindrops hanging from still-bare branches along the shoreline trail and falling from the needles of cedar and pine shine diamond-bright, adding extra dazzle.

It's a fine sight for Felix Aripa, an 86-year-old Coeur d'Alene tribal elder. Aripa says that beaver not only help with efforts to restore native cutthroat trout, they also encourage cultural restoration. Their presence often means that there are desired plants in the area, such as cedar, certain types of willows and medicinal plants that have become hard to find. Some of these plants have become so rare that they are GIS-mapped, Aripa says. Now, Coeur d'Alene children are taken out to observe and identify them in their native Salish tongue and do some harvesting.

"At language school, we want to tell about beaver, take classes to some of these different areas," Aripa says. "I'd like to teach our children what the beaver provides."

At the end of the hike, Aripa faces into the sun, observing the first of the beaver dams just off the trail.

"Years ago, they said there was a lot of red willow and birch trees here, and cottonwoods. … (And) there was beaver all the way up there," Aripa says, throwing his arms wide. "This is beaver country."

As if on cue, a beaver appears, browsing, in its ring of shining water.

The dozens of people who made the hike stand transfixed.

Kevin Taylor writes for the Pacific Northwest Inlander in Spokane, Washington.

This story was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation.

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