beaver dam

Industrious beavers create a dam that pools a stream in the White River National Forest. 

The Pitkin County Commissioners were eager beavers Tuesday to help with a project to restore beneficial rodents.

The county government will team up with the U.S. Forest Service on a project that could eventually result in releasing beavers in suitable habitat in headwaters of the White River National Forest. The first step will be undertaking an inventory to see what streams already have beaver activity and what the habitat conditions are on those streams, then identifying other watersheds with similar characteristics where beavers could be released.

The commissioners approved a $50,000 “placeholder” for the project during the 2023 budget sessions. The next step will be entering a formal agreement with the Forest Service. The funds will come from Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams program.

“This is right up our alley,” said Lisa Tasker of the Healthy Rivers Program. Beavers, she noted, are “everybody’s favorite 30-pound rodent.”

The five commissioners were borderline giddy Tuesday while getting a briefing on the project from Clay Ramey, fisheries biologist for the west zone of the White River National Forest. Pitkin County’s contribution will allow the Forest Service to hire two seasonal workers to roam remote corners of the forest surrounding the Roaring Fork Valley later this year and conduct a beaver inventory.

He said there is a mountain of research that spells out how beavers benefit the ecosystem. Their dams capture sediment that allows streams to fill in rather than function as a deep-furrowed ditch. And while they fell a substantial amount of vegetation while building dams, their work improves the health of riparian areas and results in much more vegetation growth, Ramey said.

“Beavers change their environment. That’s why they are useful to us and the ecosystem,” he said.

Ramey said he witnessed firsthand how the release of a mating beaver couple transformed a small spit of a creek on a mesa above Rifle. The couple was released in 2015. They built 30-plus dams and had at least one litter of kits over a five-year period. The stream in the narrow valley was degraded after a century of cattle running, with steep, denuded banks in many places. The beaver ponds restored a healthier ecosystem.

Beavers once covered extensive portions of the American West but were trapped and killed by ranchers until they were nearly extinct in the late 1800s.

“We killed virtually all of the beavers in 10 years,” Ramey said. “We’re only on the cusp [of] turning that around.”

His intent is for a “cursory” inventory in the Roaring Fork River watershed — collecting general information from a lot of streams rather than detailed information on a few. He said it is not uncommon for beavers to colonize an area for a number of years, then move on as spring runoff wipes out their dams.

“Failure is totally acceptable and normal,” Ramey said.

The entire Roaring Fork River watershed was likely populated with beavers, but reduced numbers mean they haven’t had a chance to return to all their old habitat. This effort would potentially speed that process on national forest lands, not on private lands.

The county’s $50,000 contribution will go to the wages of the seasonal workers. The Forest Service will supply a truck and equipment. Both entities are trying to find housing for the workers for a six-month period, though they will spend considerable time in the field.

The commissioners said they will gladly support the agreement for the project and they will work on housing options.

“You guys know you had us at the word beaver, right?” said Commissioner Francie Jacober.