Beaver Ponds Environmental Education Center provides a variety of wildlife habitats in magnificent natural surroundings. It serves as a wildlife corridor between the alpine mountains in the Mosquito Range to the high plateaus of the South Park valley.
The vast beaver pond ecosystem provides a rich riparian/wetland habitat with a higher level of biodiversity than the spruce, lodgepole pine, willow meadow, and sagebrush shrubland habitats surrounding them.
Most animals that inhabit and pass through Beaver Ponds EEC are wild and reclusive. Even though you may not see the larger animals or even the beavers during your visit, we use wildlife cameras to help us understand and monitor the wildlife here and regularly post photos on our website and Facebook. Please read on to learn about some of the more common animals and birds that inhabit our center.
"They said that by ancient tradition of which they did not know the origin, the Beavers had been an ancient People, and then lived on the dry land; they were always Beavers, not Men, they were wise and powerful, and neither Man, nor any animal made war on them." — Cree Lore
Beavers (Castor candensis) are second only to humans in their ability to change their environment. They harvest several acres of trees a year to build their lodges and dams. They can fill dry, desert areas with rich greenery that attracts other animals such as moose, blue herons, and fish. They are masters at controlling water and moving trees.
Why do they go to all this work to make large ponds? The ponds help them avoid predators, since the entrances to their lodges are underwater. Even large predators such as bears, coyotes, and mountain lions cannot swim into the lodges. Beavers are a little blind and slow on land, so any large predator would make short work of them without their watery environment.
They use their long teeth to cut through trees. They can cut a small tree in a few minutes and a tree with a 12-inch trunk in several hours. Their teeth are orange due to a high content of iron, which makes them stronger.
The sound of running water is a cue for them to go to work, since it indicates a leak or overflow in the dam that needs repair. They eat the sugary layer under the bark of certain trees. At Beaver Ponds EEC, their favorite trees are aspen and willow. They mate for life and live about 15 years. Even after beavers are gone, their ponds create nutrient-rich soil that grow into lush meadows, which can be seen on the property.
“First, therefore I will speak of the Elke, which the Savages call a Mose: it is a very large Deare, with a very faire head, and a broad palme, like the palme of a fallow Deares horne, but much bigger, and is 6 foote wide between the tipps, which grow curbing downwards: he is of the bignesse of a great horse.” Samuel Champlain, 1603
Moose (Alces alces shirasi) were introduced to Colorado in the 1970s and have adjusted nicely to their new home. They are naturally adapted to the High Country's harsh winters. Their long legs help them move through deep snow. A special arrangement of cartilage and tendons allows their large hooves to spread on the snow, reducing sinking. Moose use a special gait in deep snow, angling the center of their rear legs outward to reduce drag. Their hollow fur provides extra insulation. Because they are so adapted to the cold, temperatures greater than 23 degrees Fahrenheit can cause them to pant and seek shady or watery areas.
Aquatic plants are an important part of their summer diet, and they often submerge their entire head to collect underwater morsels. Moose eat water weed, which grows in beaver ponds, since it is high in potassium and sodium — elements that are not found as abundantly in terrestrial forage. They can also scavenge food that beavers have brought to their pond, such as the bark and leaves of branches that the beavers cache in the mud of the pond.
Adult moose are big. Even though moose in Colorado are the smallest moose species, they can weigh 500 to 800 pounds. Bulls stand up to 6 feet at the shoulder. They may look clumsy, but they can run up to 35 miles per hour. Moose can be aggressive, so it's best to watch their majestic forms from a distance.
Rocky Mountain Elk
Elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni) are the second largest member of the deer family (moose are the largest). Elk are also known as wapiti, a Native American word meaning "white rump."
Mature males, or bulls, can weigh up to 700 pounds and stand 5 feet high at the shoulder. Elk make a lot of sounds to communicate with each other. The loudest and most recognizable sound is the “bugling” of bulls during mating season. This sound, which can be heard for miles, usually begins low in pitch and continues up the scale until it reaches a high, shrill pitch, followed by several low grunts. Elk graze on forbs (flowering plants), grasses, and leaves of trees.
Elk have trouble finding food in the winter; they must subsist on body fat stored in the summer, as well as dried twigs, shrubs, and grasses, which are often buried under snow.
The winter survival of many other wildlife species may be intertwined with that of the elk. Magpies are often seen picking parasites off the backs of elk. Other birds follow herds of elk, gleaning the snow-covered vegetation uncovered by the foraging animals. Coyotes also follow elk, watching for voles that are flushed from their burrows by an elk pawing through the snow. A weakened elk may become prey for mountain lions or coyotes. Wintering bald eagles, ravens, badgers, and even gophers will also feed on winter-killed elk.
These “song dogs” are one of the top predators at Beaver Ponds EEC, which means they play a critical role in the health of the ecosystem. Like beaver, coyotes are considered a keystone species, but, unlike the beaver, their role is to keep the population of their prey in balance with the ecosystem. The relationship is not exactly intuitive. For example, one study found that ground-dwelling birds, such as the sage grouse, benefit from the presence of coyotes. How is this possible? Well, coyotes reduce jack rabbit populations which in turn, reduces the number of eagles, which prey on eggs and young ground nesting birds such as sage grouse. Coyotes also reduce the number of competitors that eat the same prey birds eat, such as mice and voles.
Coyotes are masters of versatility. According to the scientists at Untamedscience.com, even though coyotes “are classified as carnivores, their food habits are quite omnivorous; their diet consists of rodents, rabbits, amphibians, and reptiles, birds, eggs, insects, invertebrates, fruit and vegetative matter, deer, carrion ... pretty much anything they can find! The generalist habits of the coyote have allowed it to be successful in a variety of habitats from desert to tundra and everything in-between.”
Small Animals and Rodents
Ermine, known as stoats and short-tailed weasels, are some of the smaller inhabitants at Beaver Ponds EEC.
Other inhabitants at Beaver Ponds EEC, who are their cousins, include minks, otters, pine martens, and badgers.
Ermines are highly adaptable, ferocious carnivores. Their quick, hopping method of motion makes them look cute, but they can strike their prey and kill it in seconds. Their favorite prey are ground squirrels and rabbits, both much larger than the little weasel.
In the summer, ermines are reddish in color with a lighter chest and underbelly and a black tip on their tail. In the winter, they turn a pure white, except for that black tail tip. Their white fur is so beautiful that winter ermine are the symbol of purity in several religious traditions.
Even though they are fierce, they are susceptible to many predators, including raptors, coyotes, and because their pelts are prized for clothing, humans. They frequent “ecotones,” which are the places where habitats change from one type to another, such as forest edges and shores of beaver ponds. Look for them in brush debris, rock piles, and hollow logs.
Did you know the beaver is the second largest rodent in the world? The rodent order, or rodentia, is the single largest group of mammals on earth, with about 1,500 known species.
Many types of rodents can be found at Beaver Ponds besides beavers. They include: mice, voles, wood rats, tree squirrels, chipmunks, and ground squirrels. A couple of rodent cousins are often mistaken for each other. One is the golden mantled ground squirrel, and the other, the least chipmunk. They both prefer sunny, disturbed areas and eat flowers, seeds, and insects. The golden mantled ground squirrel is about twice the size as the chipmunk, and its stripe does not continue to its cheeks.
Other common animals you may see include the mountain cottontail rabbit, porcupine, pine marten, and raccoon. Many species are dependent on the riparian habitat, including silver-haired bat, mink, northern river otter, mallard ducks, blue herons, amphibians such as salamanders, frogs and toads (including the endangered boreal toad), a few small, non-poisonous snakes, lizards, and various species of trout and other fish.
The birds, trees, and beaver ponds of the montane and subalpine forests are closely linked. Trees provide many services to the smaller birds like chickadees, nut hatches, and jays, including protection from predators, a place to build nests, and food in the form of pine cone seed.
The ponds provide a perfect place for insects to hatch in the summer, many of which provide more bird food. The smaller birds then become prey to the raptors that live in the area, such as the goshawk, eagle, owl, kestrel, and hawk. Though it can be challenging for birds of prey to fly between trees, most have adapted by using less speed and more control.
Many small birds migrate south to avoid the harsh winters. There are several hardy exceptions, including the mountain chickadee, Clark's nutcracker, ravens, jays, and the colorful pine grosbeak. The Clark's nutcracker is especially important in propagating bristlecone and limber pines. This sharp-beaked flier pries the seeds from their cones and stores them as a long-term food source. These often germinate, starting new pines, thanks to the nutcracker.
Amphibians and Reptiles
There are several amphibians and at least one reptile that live at Beaver Ponds EEC. Amphibians include the boreal toad, boreal chorus frog, wood frog, and tiger salamander. The non-venomous, western terrestrial garter snake is our reptile.
One of the most interesting toads is the boreal toad (Bufo boreas boreas), one of the few toads to live at high elevation (7,000 to 12,000 feet). This tough little toad hibernates in the winter and when not in hibernation, can tolerate temperatures down to 35 degrees. Like many amphibians in the world, this tiny toad is considered an endangered species, due to an amphibious fungus, and possibly, climate change.
Sacramento Creek, which runs through Beaver Ponds EEC, is home to only a few fish species. The creek is cold, fast and fairly shallow and not inviting to many larger fish, though some larger fish may find their way into the larger beaver ponds.
The occasional brook trout, brown trout, rainbow trout and the Colorado native cutthroat may pass through from the Upper South Platte or the high alpine lakes. About 15 species of minnows native to streams and rivers of the eastern slope of the Continental Divide are still found throughout the state and may be found in Sacramento Creek.