For years, hairstylist Sherri Tippie has been the beaver equivalent of the Ghostbusters: She's who you're gonna call. Tippie started simply motivated to save a couple beavers making a nuisance of themselves on a Denver golf course. The trapper hired to catch them told her there wasn't a way to do it without killing them, but Tippie had read otherwise, so she took matters into her own hands. She's been a go-to beaver relocator since.
"We have a responsibility for living on this planet to do something," she says in the documentary, The Beaver Believers, in which she's featured. A 12-minute segment is screening with the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour in Santa Fe on March 11 and 12. Director Sarah Koenigsberg tells SFR she knew she had the makings of a film when Tippie emerged. She was among a string of researchers and advocates studying or promoting the positive changes beavers make to ecosystems and arguing for more introduction efforts.
Beavers can be a nuisance in towns, where they fell trees and flood yards or basements, and often are killed as pests. But Koenigsberg's film documents a growing effort to return them to high-mountain areas. This keystone species ranks second among mammals for most influencing its surroundings (humans, of course, rank first), and were once widespread in the West. Streams weren't all that common, and instead, wetlands were. Then trapping dramatically reduced beaver numbers and ended their pervasive influence on water supplies.
When these industrious rodents move back in, they build dams that moderate spring floods, reducing erosion. They turn the mountainside into a sponge that gradually releases water through the summer months, supplying year-round cold water, which is good for fish and amphibians, and good for farmers and ranchers and anyone else downstream who'd like to turn on a tap and see water flow. What may resonate particularly well after the high fire-danger summers in recent years are that those wetlands also break wildfires.
"No matter what the issue is that climate change is exacerbating, the beaver dams make it better," Koenigsberg says.
The 2018 book Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, echoes much of this case, pointing out that the wetlands and ponds they create aid other animals, store carbon to help slow the slow rising global temperatures, and even reduce pollutants like phosphorus and nitrogen. But despite these demonstrated positive effects, as author Ben Goldfarb reports in the book, the US Department of Agriculture killed 21,184 beavers just in 2016.
In an era of grim news about climate change, The Beaver Believers promotes a more positive spin.
"I was kind of done with the catastrophic narratives—Chasing Ice, An Inconvenient Truth—where people just end up so scared shitless," Koenigsberg says. "People end up feeling so overwhelmed and so depressed that they just do nothing. … It just makes you feel guilty about driving cars, eating meat and using plastic straws."
She'd been doing other work that looked at climate adaptation, the idea that we can't stop climate change, but we can work to reduce the damage. Tippie offered a look in on those efforts not as someone who didn't relay the science, but as a normal person with a normal job, Koenigsberg says, who just saw something that struck her as wrong and decided to do something about it.
"Any one of us can do something, and all we have to do is actually speak up," she says. "Stand up for something. … We are going to live with these new climate impacts, but that doesn't mean there's nothing we can do to make it less hard."
This year, the lineup for the Banff tour also includes a film on Doug Peacock, a Vietnam vet on a campaign to save grizzlies; on bikepacking and summiting peaks in the Alps; canoeing from Washington to Alaska; Native American runners protesting the dramatic downsizing of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah; and a revived tradition of bareback horse racing in the Blackfoot tribe.
The Santa Fe Conservation Trust hosts the film tour as a benefit to help continue preserving 45,000 acres of open land and 75 miles of trails. But the event is also a chance to renew that urge to spend some time outdoors.
"We're really wanting to be not just a land trust—that's our history, that's where we started—but we want to connect people to nature and inspire them to take care of it into the future," says Joanne Smogor, events, volunteer and development coordinator for the Santa Fe Conservation Trust. The films do that, she says, because "people love to see what it takes for average people, sometimes not so average, and sometimes well above average, to go on these long journeys that really tax them emotionally and physically."
Even if the journey is just driving a crate full of beavers from a dammed-up culvert to a remote stream, transforming them from hassle to help.
Banff Mountain Film Festival
7 pm Monday and Tuesday March 11 and 12. $18.
Lensic Performing Arts Center,
211 W San Francisco St.,