Beaver dam, Grand Teton National Park (Photo: Pixabay)

Imagine the broad mountain valley or gentle forest stream closest to you, all of it, awash in biodiversity teeming with pollinators, native insects, birds, fish, and plants you never knew existed, bordered by fast-growing willows, alders, cottonwood, aspen. Here, rivers and streams do not rush furiously in a single gully-like channel to the sea; rather, they meander on their floodplains, saturating soils, bringing this paradise to life from mountain headwaters down to their valleys. 

According to Colorado experts such as Colorado State University Professor Ellen Wohl in Saving the Dammed, Ecometrics’ Mark Beardsley, and many others, this is what you would have seen in the land we know as Colorado (and all over the West) thanks to beaver eco-engineers before intensive beaver trapping and the following heavy colonization here. See this interactive from the High Desert Museum; click and drag to explore the differences. 

The History of Beaver in North America

Beaver used to live in almost every year-round stream in America. (Those within the beaver community often use ‘beaver” as plural instead of the colloquial “beavers”). In some locales, they were able to live for hundreds if not thousands of years. In others, they moved on when their favorite food became scarce. Abandoned ponds and complexes filled in, becoming fertile soil which would later delight settlers, who had beaver to thank for much rich farmland. Most settlers did not realize beaver were their benefactor.

Photo: Beaver, Pixabay

Beaver fur was so valuable for hats back in Europe, which had harvested its own beavers to extinction by the 1600s, that it literally became the coin of the realm; see Frances Backhouse’s Once They Were Hats for more on this. Trapping in the 1800s all over the West all but eliminated the beaver here, as it did in the rest of the U.S. and Canada. 60 to 400 million beaver reputedly lived and worked in what is now the U.S. before trapping. 

They have rebounded to an estimated 10-15 million in the US right now, mostly in wetter areas. There are some ideal beaver-inhabited locales in Colorado, but few and far between. What keeps beaver from reaching their previous numbers and re-hydrating our parched landscapes? Roads, development, development, development, habitat fragmentation, water diversions, pollution, the view of beaver as a nuisance animal, old trapper laws, and fear that beaver are stealing water from humans rather than recharging groundwater, raising the water table, and helping humans access more water than we are used to in this dry climate. 

Beaver Restoration and Climate Change

Completed and ongoing scientific studies and successful recent restoration projects all over North America are providing context to deal with these fears. See the book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb, a well-researched page-turner on this topic, the gateway book for many to the world of beaver restoration for endangered amphibians, salmon and other fish, insects, plants, landscapes by helping to keep the water where it falls.   

Photo: RalphS, Pixabay

Now with wildfires raging, experts are recognizing that beaver meadow complexes create refuges for all kinds of species during intense wildfires. See this video called Smokey the Beaver featuring Prof. Emily Fairfax (CU Boulder PhD) and her research. Here is the 45-second version. 

Modern beaver living near humans do unwittingly eat favorite trees or flood roads. (Beaver look at culverts and say, “how nice of someone to have built me this excellent dam! It has only one little defect in it, this big round hole, and I can fix that.”) However, modern humans are equal to the task of outsmarting them so both can co-exist peacefully. For an intro, See Coloradan Nichole Fox’s intro here. Then see Skip Lyle’s Beaver Deceiver website or Mike Callahan’s Beaver Solutions site. Or this short video on Denverite Sherrie Tippie, veteran beaver relocator in Colorado.   

How to Support Beaver in Colorado

The Colorado Beaver Working Group “is a collaborative space for making connections between practitioners, landowners, groups, agencies, and individuals working to promote beaver as a natural way to restore streams and wetlands for the benefit of people, plants, and wildlife.” It’s the hub for what’s happening beaver-wise in Colorado and nearby. 

This group is now blossoming prolifically. Natural resource professionals such as Ashley Hom, a USFS Gunnison National Forest hydrologist, are implementing programs to bring back the beaver. Watch her presentation at last autumn’s first Colorado Beaver Summit here. Click here for the whole fabulous range of Colorado Beaver Summit presentation recordings. Nichole Fox in Durango founded and runs Give a Dam, a new organization dedicated to beaver restoration and education, whose motto is “in beavers we trust.” Contact her at until the website is up. Everyone working on beaver restoration as a nature-based solution is busy as the proverbial beaver – we at 350 Colorado included. Stay tuned for more info!

Pam Sherman is a beaver believer and member of the Colorado Beaver Working Group and is co-developing a ‘beaver-based solution’ event with 350 Colorado. Stay tuned for details!