Ben Goldfarb's book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter is out now from Chelsea Green Publishing, and it unabashedly takes on a full-throated defense of its title rodent, the hard-working and often environmentally pivotal beaver! Open Letters talked with the author about this sometimes-maligned fixture of the natural world.
Open Letters: Thanks for talking with us, and congratulations on the appearance of your new book! Before we get into specifics, what can you tell us about the big picture? How are your beloved beavers doing, in the world? Healthy? Rebounding? Endangered?
Ben Goldfarb: Well, the answer depends on your frame of reference. If you compare current beaver levels to their populations 150 years ago, just after trappers swept the continent turning beaver pelts into fur hats, they're rebounding like gangbusters. At their nadir, there were perhaps 100,000 beavers left in North America; today, thanks to conservation laws, there are maybe 15 million, though no one knows for sure. From that perspective, they're one of our greatest wildlife success stories!
Zoom out far enough, though, and the tale isn't quite as happy. When Europeans arrived on this continent, they found as many as 400 million beavers waiting for them. We'll never get back to those numbers, but there's still lots of room for more beavers in North America, especially in the American West. I like to say that beaver recovery has come an awfully long way, but it has many miles farther to go.
OL: A note struck steadily throughout your book is that everybody - not just conservationists and beaver-fans but farmers and landowners of all kinds - should welcome that kind of resurgence, yes?
BG: Absolutely! If you know one thing about beavers, it's probably that they build dams and create ponds. Well, those water features are hugely important for life on this continent — critters from salmon to swans to moose all rely on beaver-built ponds and wetlands for their survival. Water is life, and beavers mean water. So if you're a hunter or fisherman, you definitely care about beavers. And as you mentioned, the agricultural community is increasingly interested in beavers' ability to store water during times of drought. Some of the most ardent beaver advocates I met during my reporting were ranchers in Nevada who are working with beavers to irrigate their cattle pastures.
Of course, there's so much more: Beaver ponds also capture pollutants, recharge aquifers, slow down floods, reverse erosion, act as firebreaks, store carbon, and on and on and on. So it's not just farmers or fishermen who should rightfully appreciate beavers — it's everyone who cares about clean and accessible water, abundant wildlife, and healthy land. I think that's all of us!
OL: Heh - nothing like talking with a genuine true believer! You mention talking with ranchers during the course of your reporting - what was the rest of that reporting like? As you noted, beavers were once hunted in America in absolutely staggering numbers. When you were talking to people in the field in the 21st century, did you encounter mostly fans?
BG: Mostly fans, yeah — after all, many of my sources are dyed-in-the-wool "Beaver Believers" who, like me, are convinced that aquatic rodents can help us tackle many of our ecological problems. But I also interviewed plenty of folks who wouldn't exactly self-describe as environmentalists: homeowners who have had their backyards flooded by beavers, for instance, or wildlife control trappers who make their living killing "nuisance" beavers that have clogged culverts or cut down landscaping trees. And I found that even those people, who primarily interact with beavers when the animals cause trouble, still had a deep appreciation for them. Beavers, after all, are ingenious creatures capable of engineering their environments on a vast scale; even if you're not crazy about the property damage they can cause, you can still be impressed by their industriousness. And I think their primary instinct — to rearrange their surroundings to maximize food and shelter — is an impulse that we humans, the ultimate ecosystem engineers, can certainly empathize with. Whether you consider them saviors, pests, or something in between, it's hard not to admire their hard work and resourcefulness.
OL: Yes indeed, humans are "the ultimate ecosystem engineers" - although, infamously, not always in good ways! In fact, the disastrously short-sighted or ham-fisted ways humans alter their ecosystems have been making headlines for decades - which brings us to perhaps the cheesiest question any environmental journalist can be asked, but if cheese is needed, cheese we shall deliver: what can humans learn from beavers?
BG: Hey, I love a good wheel of cheese. You know, as I alluded to earlier, beavers are in some ways our spiritual kin: We both prefer to settle near water, we both favor low-gradient river valleys, and we both love to modify our habitats. Every species adapts to its environment; beavers and humans are two of the only creatures that make their environments adapt to them. But while we share the engineering instinct, the ways in which we change the land are wildly different. Which brings me to what we can learn from our buck-toothed brothers and sisters.
First, we have to embrace chaos. We Homo sapiens like the world neat and orderly — our streets arranged in grids, our crops planted in parallel furrows, our rivers straitjacketed by levees. Beavers, by contrast, are apparent anarchists: They make streams spill onto their floodplains, they turn single-thread creeks into messy tangles of side channels and pools, they leave jumbles of downed wood everywhere. What looks to us like pandemonium, though, is really diversity — where we create simple environments with a relative paucity of available niches, beavers create incredible, life-supporting complexity. Baby trout rear in their side channels, moose feed in their wet meadows, woodpeckers drill in the dead trees they've flooded, and so on. So that's the first lesson: For the sake of other species, we need to learn how to make a mess.
The second lesson: Small is beautiful. We love huge, centralized water storage projects: think, for instance, of the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. There's no doubt that enormous dams and reservoirs are convenient from a water delivery standpoint; there's also no doubt they're disastrous for the environment. (Just ask Edward Abbey.) What's more, they're risky: The Oroville Dam nearly destroyed thousands of homes last winter, and a lot of our biggest reservoirs have already accumulated so much silt that they're practically useless. I like the idea of water storage approaches that are less centralized, more beaverish: small, dispersed, localized. Let's go back to those Nevada ranchers. One ranch manager, a guy named James Rogers, is beaverizing his entire property — nearly a million acres of land! — by designing a series of constructed wetlands that will store water, attract beavers, and recharge the ranch's aquifers. Instead of putting his irrigation eggs in one basket, he's storing pockets of water all over the ranch, in a system that both mimics and cooperates with beavers. Beavers aren't a silver bullet in the face of climate change and drought — but they can certainly be valuable instructors.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.