Friday, July 8, 2005

Beaver Walks and Bob talks

ERC offers walks to see habitat of nature's engineer

Express Staff Writer

Bob Wilkins shows his favorite tour group, young students, a beaver habitat.

Why not head out into nature, take a hike and instead of just acquiring new blisters see something a wee different this summer. The Environmental Resource Center offers Beaver Walks on Thursdays through the month of July and again in August. And these walks can introduce even the most embedded of residents to some fellow citizenry.

The American beaver. Castor canadensis, is, though one hates to say it, a member of the rodent family. In fact, the beaver is the second largest rodent in the world after the capybara of South America. They can weigh more than 50 pounds and reach up to four feet in length, from the snout to the tip of its flat, scaly tail.

American beavers live in colonies that are typically composed of five or six animals, although some family groups can grow to include as many as a dozen animals. They are predominantly monogamous creatures, especially the males of the species. Breeding pairs mate during the winter. Generally, females give birth to two to four kits in late spring. The young stay with their parents until they are 2 years old, at which point they depart to colonize new territories.

Widely trapped for their pelts in the 1800s, they are now mostly found through North America north of Mexico, excluding Florida, southern California, and southern Nevada. In fact, they are common throughout much of Idaho wherever there are streams, ponds, lakes, and even along rivers.

The ERC walks are conducted by naturalist Bob Wilkins, who moved to the Wood River Valley five years ago. ERC volunteers and AmeriCorps volunteers tag along for the educational aspect and often take the lead.

"I just am a kid who liked to watch beavers at the pond," Wilkins said. "These classes that the ERC has help people get outdoors. One purposes for the beaver walk is to show people that beavers are part of the local environment; who they are, what they are and what they do."

Indeed, Wilkins finds the busy and industrious animals particularly interesting, not just for the way they look but for some similarities with another species.

"There are two species that can change their environment. The other is you. And their family structure is just like ours are—mom rules," he laughed. "But seeing beavers is not nearly so important to the teaching process as it is to show people the natural space that the beavers have changed. The back then, the right now, and the future."

There are several thriving beaver colonies in the valley, though not as many as once.

"We have a substantial beaver population that is probably expanding," wildlife biologist David Skinner said in an interview in 2003 with the Sun Valley Guide. "But it's a small percentage of what was once here. Before trapping, I'm sure the whole Wood River Valley area was full of beavers."

Wood River Valley habitats are west of Trail Creek Pass; near Ketchum at the confluence of Lake Creek and the Big Wood River; in the Silver Creek Preserve near Picabo; in the sloughs of the Broadford area west of Bellevue, and along numerous streams east and west of the Wood River Valley, including the East Fork of the Big Wood.

Beavers do not inhabit areas along the Big Wood River in large numbers, primarily because the river is too large for the animals to dam, Skinner said.

"The ERC is a teaching organization," Wilkins said. "It's more than just the garbage pick-up at the symphony. This is just one of the many things they do."

A native of Fresno County, Calif., Wilkins has done this kind of thing since he was in his 20s.

"I do this for Sun Valley Adaptive Sports, the ERC's winter tracking walks with Ann Christensen and Natural Conservancy walks at Silver Creek," Wilkins said. "The delight of light of my life though, other than the young lady sitting beside me (his wife, Dee), is taking the first graders from the Bellevue and Hailey schools to Silver Creek in the spring. We take a walk and I end up learning the most. It's a joy."

The walks are controlled by sunlight. Participants meet promptly 7 p.m. at the ERC office on North Main Street in Ketchum to sign up and gather for car-pooling. Right now a walk may last almost two hours but later in summer they are shorter.

To reserve your spot for one of the upcoming walks, Thursday, July 14, 21, 28, call the ERC at 726-4333. They are free to ERC members and cost $10 for non-members.

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