In the Gunnison Valley, you’d be hard pressed to find a rancher who doesn't view beavers as a major inconvenience. Apart from flooding roads and other areas, beavers can damage trees and clog up culverts.
“I can’t overstate how many people have this problem,” explained Western Colorado University Master in Environmental Management student Malcolm Macleod.
The Aberdeen Quarry, located southwest of Gunnison, marks the latest subject site of busy beavers’ devastation, leaving the main route to the quarry below about three feet of water this past summer.
A massive dam — stretching nearly 100 feet long — was the culprit of continued flooding in the area, leading the Gunnison County Pioneer and Historical Society to cancel their annual tours of the historic area distinguished by large granite deposits used to construct the Colorado State Capitol building in Denver in the early 1890s.
“We haven't had any tours these last two years because of this beaver problem,” explained the Historical Society’s Jim Barry.
However, rather than eliminate beavers from the area altogether as has been tradition elsewhere in the valley, the Historical Society searched for an alternative solution.
“South Beaver Creek is named Beaver Creek for a reason,” laughed Barry. “Beavers, depending on who you talk to, can be very beneficial or they can be a big problem.”
That’s where Western’s Macleod came in. The now selfproclaimed “beaver believer” proposed a new way of humans co-existing with the creature.
Under a fellowship with the Coldharbour Institute, Macleod worked to develop and implement water management strategies to holistically benefit the land. It was when he stumbled upon a beaver carcass during his research that he considered the real impacts of the largest rodent in North America.
“I quickly realized everyone saw the beaver as a pest,” explained Macleod.
If there’s a beaver dam located on the property, the course of action often means removing the dam and killing the beaver, said Macleod.
However, Macleod has come across a different way of doing things — in the creation of what’s known as a “beaver deceiver.” The deceiver is essentially a flow-control device in the form of a flexible pond leveler.
This is a type of device places a pipe through the dam, allowing humans to control the water level. The pipe is protected from damming on the upstream end by a steel wire cage.
The device’s purpose is twofold — it works to prevent flood damage while at the same protecting beavers that have made a home there.
The Gunnison County Historical Society opted to maintain the prime environment for the beaver by utilizing the deceiver — and, hopefully, come spring the device can be adjusted to make sure roads to the quarry remain dry.
Macleod and his team were just in time to install the structure — breaking through the icy waters to install the device, resulting in a drop to the water level on the road of more than a foot.
He hopes the success seen at Aberdeen Quarry can be replicated other places throughout the Gunnison Valley.
“People that have beavers are better off,” said Macleod.
As it turns out, there are entire institutions dedicated to addressing the huge need for trained professionals to better manage beaver conflicts. Macleod is currently earning his Beaver Professional Certification to be better equipped at helping local stakeholders manage beavers in a mutually beneficial way.
According to Macleod, the most common beaver problem plaguing the Gunnison Valley comes from dammed culverts.
Despite the beaver’s bad rap, the benefits of keeping them around may also aid ranchers in the long run, he said. Not only does the continuous battle to remove the animal come at an economic cost, but streams may suffer too.
“Streams like to be messy,” said Macleod.
That is, each beaver dam acts like a speed-bump — slowing down the flow. This, in turn, adds to the biodiversity and overall health of the waterways.
“What people don't realize is that beavers are farmers too,” explained Macleod.
For ranchers grazing cattle, beaver activity is part of an ecosystem chain that aids the production of lush, high-nutrient forage in riparian areas, providing another benefit. Beaver dams also help store water during dry years.
“Hopefully it works so that beavers can co-exist in the ponds as we take people out on tours down the road to get to the quarry,” added the Historical Society’s Barry.
(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)