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Pitkin County aims to bring back beavers

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Woody Creek landowner Jennifer Craig points out the network of beaver dams, ponds and lodges on her property. She first noticed the animals had moved in during the summer of 2020 and the beaver dam complex has been growing each season.

During the summer of 2020, Woody Creek landowner Jennifer Craig noticed that beavers had taken up residence on her property, building a dam across the channel and creating a pool.

The network of dams, pools and lodges has continued to grow over the past few seasons, creating a lush, muddy wetland thick with willows. And despite what Craig characterized as complaints about flooded land from downstream neighbors and calls for her to clear out the beaver handiwork she says the beavers are beneficial because they keep water on the landscape.

“As an upstream landowner, the best thing I can do is nothing,” she said. “Flooding from a beaver dam is natural, but people don’t like the chaos. Beavers provide habitat for so many other creatures, and they are keeping water in that whole corridor down there.”

Beavers have constructed a network of dams and lodges on this Woody Creek property. Pitkin County is betting big on beavers, funding projects that may eventually reintroduce the animals to suitable habitat on public lands. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Pitkin County is hoping that other landowners see things the way Craig does as it makes beavers a top priority, funding measures that may eventually restore North America’s largest rodent to areas it once lived in the Roaring Fork watershed.

Prized among early trappers for their fur that made fashionable hats, beavers were also seen as a nuisance to farmers and ranchers — perspectives used to justify killing them. But there has been a growing recognition over the past few years that beavers play a crucial role in the health of ecosystems. By building dams that pool water, the engineers of the forest can transform channelized streams into sprawling, soggy floodplains that recharge groundwater, create habitat for other species, improve water quality, and create areas resistant to wildfires and climate change.

The growing popularity of the animal caught the attention of Healthy Rivers board members, a group whose mission includes improving water quality and quantity. They are hoping to teach landowners how to coexist peacefully with beavers, correct beaver misconceptions and maybe even reintroduce them onto carefully chosen areas of the watershed. The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers board has spent just over $70,000 to date, with another $50,000 planned toward bringing back beavers, according to Healthy Rivers staff.

“They are so important for our environment and, in particular, our water environments,” said Wendy Huber, chair of the Healthy Rivers board. “How do we shift people’s perception of them from being destructive rodents to being our partners in protecting the environment?”

Forest Service inventory

Healthy Rivers has, so far, come up with two ways to do that.

One is a public-awareness campaign called Bring Back Beavers that features cute yet edgy beaver characters and catchphrases (“It’s About Dam Time,” for example), with plans to put the slogans on T-shirts and stickers. A new website presents beaver facts (their teeth never stop growing) and busts beaver myths (they don’t eat fish).

The other part of the strategy is to fund a program with the U.S. Forest Service for a beaver survey that aims to document more than 200 randomly selected riparian sites on public land in the headwaters over two years to find where beavers are thriving and identify locations where they could be successfully relocated in the future. Healthy Rivers has spent $50,000 on the project, which paid for two Forest Service technicians to carry out the work and has earmarked another $50,000 for next season.

Clay Ramey, a fisheries biologist with White River National Forest, is leading the effort, along with two technicians in the field, Samantha Alford and Stephanie Lewis, who are spending the summer chasing beavers. Ramey said that for a watershed-scale project such as this, it is important to analyze data collected from around the entire region, not just in places where beavers live.

“Beavers come and go, so measuring known sites is not helpful,” he said. “We are in the habitat business, so we want to know the big-picture questions like where do we have beavers, where do we not have beavers and what is the habitat like at the places where we do have beavers and what is the habitat like at the places where we do not have beavers.”

To that end, Alford and Lewis have been heading into sometimes-remote sites on streams throughout the watershed — North Thompson Creek, Fryingpan River, Conundrum Creek, Hunter Creek, Snowmass Creek and others — to measure the width of waterways, the slope of streams, the types of vegetation present and any signs of beaver activity, past or present, such as dams, lodges or chewed sticks.

Samantha Alford, right, and Stephanie Lewis, technicians with the U.S. Forest Service, measure the slope and width of Conundrum Creek. Pitkin County has spent $50,000 on this summer’s beaver habitat survey and has earmarked another $50,000 for next season. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Beavers generally like slow-moving streams that are not too steep and have plenty of nearby willows, aspens, cottonwoods and alders, which they can use for food and building materials.

“We know slope is relevant to where a beaver can prosper,” Ramey said. “Aspen, cottonwood, alder — a site that has none of those is not a place a beaver is going to do well because it doesn’t have any food.”

Ramey hopes the information collected by the inventory project will be incorporated into revisions for the updated forest-management plan, which is in progress.

Beaver relocation

Tom Cardamone, executive director of the Watershed Biodiversity Initiative and former longtime director of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, is one of several beaver boosters who have been quietly meeting over the past few months, plotting how to communicate with the public about beaver restoration.

With permission from Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Cardamone has relocated nuisance beavers on Nicholson Creek, which is a tributary of Capitol Creek, but he realized that a more formal protocol will be needed if rehoming them becomes more frequent. An eventual outcome of Pitkin County’s campaign may be relocating troublemaking beavers on private land to sites identified by the Forest Service survey as prime habitat on public land.

“You need to catch a whole group and move them to get them to stick,” Cardamone said. “It takes a few days to catch them and you have to hold them someplace that’s protected and secure, so no predators. You have to clean them and make sure they are healthy and then move them all as a group. That’s a bit of a lift.”

But there may be a looming legal question about new ponds created by relocated beavers. This year, Colorado lawmakers rejected a version of a bill that would have made it easier for environmental groups to do stream-restoration projects that mimic beaver activities because of potential unknown impacts to downstream water rights holders. Engineers from the Division of Water Resources last year told groups proposing projects on Eagle County Open Space that would have included beaver dam analogues that they must get an augmentation plan — which are costly, require the work of attorneys and engineers, and involve a lengthy water court process — to replace the water lost to evaporation by the creation of small ponds.

Could the same thing happen if the ponds were created by actual beavers on Forest Service land?

“We have not seen any indication that there’s a substantial legal concern,” said Pitkin County Assistant Attorney Laura Makar.

That’s good news for Huber, who has such an affection for the creatures that she once tried but failed to carry a favorite stick she found on a Montana fishing trip — its ends chewed and denuded of bark by beaver incisors — through airport security.

“Let’s bring them back,” she said. “They were here first. It’s a no-brainer.”

Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, environment, social justice and more. Visit Aspen Journalism is supported by a grant from the Pitkin County Healthy Community Fund. Jennifer Craig is the daughter of Carol Craig, a long-time Aspen Journalism supporter.

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