Eager – The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb is, as the title declares, full of surprises. Beavers, those large, dam building mammals in the rodent family are not what you’d ever expect to be glamorous or captivating. But in many ways they are both.
Through all my years of hiking and exploring I’ve actually never seen a wild beaver. Thus, they hardly cross my mind. Occassionaly, I’d witness a muskrat and for a few seconds wish it into being a beaver. So when I came across Goldfarb’s book I nearly overlooked it. Thankfully, I did not.
Eager is a well-crafted, old school (in all the right ways) natural history book. It tells the history of beavers, but also the story of why beavers are so important. Rarely overburdened with statistics, instead Eager is loaded with first hand accounts of “Beaver Believers”, exactly the sort of quirky people you’d expect to be overtly interested in beavers. But these beaver lovers cover a wide range of people from governmental land managers, conservationists and ranchers.
What this book shows in novel-like storytelling is how incredibly important beavers are to ecosystems. Nearly every part of the country can benefit from a beaver’s natural affinity to build dams. At first impression, they seem like destructive creatures, gnawing down creek-side trees and causing flooding. But what these natural construction workers do is create habitat for countless other animals.
Goldfarb rightly argues that beavers are a keystone species, on footing with more high-profile animals such as wolves. In Yellowstone, the reintroduction of wolves gained headlines. But it was a combination of adding these predators and the work of beavers that truly restored riparian habitat.
Beavers are perhaps the most unique animal in terms of conservation. No other animal (to my knowledge) can actually be a tool used for conservation. Yes, predators help keep down numbers of grazing animals. But beavers actually construct dams using natural materials and create habitat. Their ability to alter water flow leads to better water quality, sediment control and more wetlands.
Of course, “using” beavers goes against the norm of land “management”. You can’t predict and can only partially control where or what the beavers will do. And much of their work is gradual. They can build dams fast, but the wetlands they create takes time.
Beavers can cause a lot of problems for humans, most notably when they dam up culverts and cause flooding, often over roadways. But there are several companies now that make “Beaver Deceivers” that are ways to block off culverts (and other areas of concern), preventing beavers from making dams where they would be problematic. These are usually a cost-effective way to avoid calling in the trappers, which usually means death to the offending beaver.
Eager – The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter does a superb job telling the natural history of beavers. As someone with a Disney-level amount of knowledge on beavers, I learned a great deal. I had always pictured rivers to be wide, picturesque flows of winding water. But a natural, beaverful waterway is dynamic, messy, and way better for wildlife. Beaver-assisted conservation may be the best hidden tool in the conservationist toolkit.
Goldfarb has turned me into a Beaver Believer.