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Voyage of the Beaver

Nature’s engineers — and environmental heroes — make a comeback in western U.S.

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Oregon illustrates the conflicts. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife notes many benefits to having beaver in the landscape, even as the Oregon Department of Agriculture recently reclassified beaver as a predator. Hearing this, the folks at the conference laugh. "Do (beaver) take out peg-legged people?" Pollock wonders.

The "predator" classification allows Oregon landowners to kill beaver without getting a permit first or notifying anyone about the numbers killed. Charlie Ernst, a soft-spoken, fourth-generation rancher in central Oregon's Tygh Ridge, near Dufur, is changing that mindset by letting beaver re-colonize his 5,700 acres of dryland wheat and cattle pasture.

"My grandfather killed beaver. My uncle killed beaver. I never understood what the problem was. It always looked like a benefit to me," says Ernst, who stopped the trapping about 15 years ago.

Ernst has aerial photos that show the change along the seven miles of Dry Creek that meanders across his land. "The landscape with no beaver looks like a lunar landscape. With beaver, you need a machete. It's that thick," Ernst says.

Dry Creek used to run with water only a few days in spring. Now, with 20 beaver dams, it runs for months.

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.

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