In the Kawuneeche Valley at Rocky Mountain National Park, beavers are on the return
For Sky-Hi News
The hundreds of thousands of visitors who visit the Kawuneeche Valley of Rocky Mountain National Park each year enjoy the valley’s picturesque meadows and forests beside the winding Colorado River, with elk and moose abundant. What many may not know is that the valley was once home to a thriving beaver population, whose efficiently built dams kept the area covered by water.
Beavers are more than furry animals that love to swim, said Koren Nydic, Chief of Resource Stewardship at RMNP. “Beavers are ecosystem engineers. They raise the water table and connect the river with the floodplain.”
Nydick is responsible for overseeing work on natural and cultural resources, fire management, and more. She is also a member of the Kawuneeche Valley Ecosystem Restoration Collaborative (KVERC), whose mission is to restore the valley to its natural, wetland state. One facet of this mission is bringing back beaver.
“We depend on beavers for a lot of ecosystem services…they’re a key element in creating this wetland ecosystem with high biodiversity,” Nydick said, explaining that near the headwaters of the river, the valley once supported a variety of plant and animal life.
The area was once a lush combination of riparian wetlands and wet meadows, with subalpine forests along the edge. However, human intervention changed this over time, chipping away at the beaver’s habitat.
Now, the valley is sometimes referred to as a savannah, Nydick said. “People say there aren’t savannahs in the park, but “we’re experiencing a biome shift from a wetland ecosystem to a dryland ecosystem.”
Nydick explained there have been a number of impacts that dried out Kawuneeche Valley over the centuries. Native Americans, particularly the Ute tribes, lived there for thousands of years. When the tribes were moved onto reservations, fur trappers crowded the area, killing much of the beaver population.
Ranchers sped up the beaver’s loss of habitat by planting non-native grasses, pulling willows and creating ditches to irrigate certain areas. One example is the Grand Ditch, created in the late 1880s. This left less water for the valley, and made it prone to sediment from breaches of the structure.
Humans then introduced wildlife that negatively affected the valley. Just before RMNP was established, the U.S. Forest Service brought in a group of elk from Yellowstone National Park.
These were “naive to the park,” said Nydick. “They were plopped down in this lush ecosystem…it was a green grocery store for them. Their main predators were gone, so their populations grew. They ate the willow and aspen, and those are the building blocks for beaver.”
On top of this, humans also introduced moose to Grand County. Moose, so emblematic of the area, are not native.
“There’s no evidence they had reproducing populations here, even though you’ll find them all over storefronts in Grand Lake!” Nydick said. “They really like Kawuneeche Valley, and they really like eating the willow.”
As these factors converged, the valley’s ecosystem engineers disappeared. And with that went their ability to improve water quality. This further deteriorated the habitat, and then natural disaster hit in October 2020, with the East Troublesome Fire.
Since the wetlands had shrunk, the fire roared through the dry Kawuneeche Valley, scorching everything in its path. “We lost a lot of structures in the park, and people worked for months without a lot of sleep (to stop the fire),” Nydick said.
The devastation of Kawuneeche Valley added urgency to KVERC’s mission and highlighted how a healthy, wetland ecosystem can mitigate future wildfires.
“(East Troublesome) showed the importance of ecological restoration,” said Kimberly Mihelich, the Source Water Protection Specialist for Northern Water, where she assesses the health of local water resources. “The hope is, if there’s a well-established beaver population, they can create fire breaks.”
Climate change and drought exacerbate wildfire, and beaver structures help keep water on landscapes even during dry years. “If we already had this (wetland) ecosystem in place, it would in turn be more resilient to climate change,” Nydick said.
“It’s all an interconnected system. If beavers keep the landscape wetter, there’s more water in drier years for the rivers,” said Kayli Foulk, the Water Quality Specialist for Grand County. She explained that in 2021, the ground was so dry that it soaked up much of the snowmelt, leaving less to flow into the Colorado River.
Nydick added that the longer people wait to restore the wetland ecosystems, the more difficult it will be. “If we can’t restore this ecosystem, we won’t have a tool to buffer droughts in the future, when they’ll be longer and more extreme. If we can be successful now, it will allow us to take the benefits farther into the future, even with climate change,” she said. And as an added bonus, a restored ecosystem lures back beavers.
Currently, RMNP has some exclosures, or fenced areas, to keep out grazing wildlife. In the exclosures, willows and other wetland plants are thriving again, enticing beaver back to their homes. “A beaver has come back, or maybe more, to build dams again…they are more mobile than we give them credit for,” Nydick said. “We took a field trip out there, and our KVERC group got to see the dams and raised water table. That was really cool. So we know the climate is still…capable of supporting this ecosystem.” And better yet, “There wasn’t a beaver we knew of in the park since 2004—until last year!” Nydick said.
KVERC’s action plan for Kawuneeche Valley is to create simulated beaver structures inside exclosures that mimic what beavers do naturally. “Our goal is to raise the water table to improve the habitat for wetland plants and species like amphibians,” Nydick said.
These structures will be temporary. Eventually, KVERC hopes more beavers will move in and take over the job. “They build it better than people can!” Nydick said. “If a beaver establishes a good system of dams, it can change the ecosystem beyond the fence.”
Since the fences will not be permanent, the goal is to restore the habitat in the exclosure first, then have the benefits extend throughout the Kawuneeche Valley and RMNP at large. KVERC hopes to implement the first new exclosures and simulated structures in the late summer of 2023.
“The program is still in the assessment stage,” said Mihelich. “We’re still looking at grants and other sources of funding.” KVERC also has to go through the proper clearances and permitting.
Foulk stressed the importance of partnering with a multitude of organizations, as well as the community as a whole, to get their project off the ground. “We’re working with stakeholders in Grand Lake and a lot of different organizations,” she said. KVERC’s partners include: Northern Water, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado River District, Grand County, Town of Grand Lake, U.S. Forest Service, and The Nature Conservancy. They have also teamed up with Colorado State University for further assessments.
“We want to work together with the public, nonprofit organizations, and private landowners…so this project is a long-term success,” Foulk said. “Our goal working with the broader community is to prioritize and evaluate the different restoration options we have.”
Nydick added KVERC is developing an outreach and education plan. “We anticipate having some outreach events and eventually some field days where people can help, and learn about our ideas and recommendations,” Nydick said. This summer, KVERC is hoping to have an event to get people involved and learn more about the project. They will also have more community-driven activities in summer 2023, and progress from there.
“It is integral for our community to take care of this precious resource, because it all begins here, and affects everyone downstream,” Foulk said. “That’s why this is such an important initiative for us.”
Kawuneeche Valley is more than a beautiful destination in Rocky Mountain National Park. It can be home to a thriving beaver population and ecosystem that mitigates wildfire, offsets drought, and improves the river’s water supply and quality.
Aside from providing water from the Western Slope to Eastern Slope of the state, the Colorado River also supplies water to Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California. By the headwaters of the Colorado River, the health of Kawuneeche Valley affects the lives of all Grand County residents, and the country beyond.
For more information on the Kawuneeche Valley Ecosystem Restoration Collaborative, please visit: co.grand.co.us/1436/KVERC.
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