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The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter


June 1, 2020

By Ben Goldfarb
Chelsea Green, 2018
304 pages, hardcover, $17.95

Thinking about beavers makes me happy. I don’t know much about them: They haven’t flooded my back garden, my neighbors’ back field or forest, chewed my trees down, jammed the culvert and inundated the road. But I think they might help us manage water, given the weather shift in climate change.

“Eager: The Surprising Life of Beavers” joyfully and defiantly tracks work being done to bring beavers back, sometimes with human help, into damaged landscapes that can’t hold water anymore. Apparently the whole U.S. territory was crawling with beavers when Europeans arrived, a landscape of cascading dams and wide, shallow beaver flowages, full of all the other aquatic creatures.

In fact, I have observed this personally. My family and I camp in New Hampshire along a stream that runs out of the White Mountain National Forest, past a rich little farmed intervale, and plunges into the woods below. Some years ago the farmer didn’t get around to shooting the beavers that flooded the field, and we observed beavers building a long, zigzag dam across the top of a stream, flooding the land upstream. I realized then that the intervale itself, a broad, flat, fertile meadow, must have been created by beavers before settlers came. It must have been a great beaver flow, trapping all the mountain silt. Apparently these landscapes can be brought back when beavers return, bringing the water we need with them.

Beavers have long been regarded as varmints, not tolerated by landowners and managers. This is still largely the case. But as our human encroachment keeps growing and our climate changing, we can’t count on having water where we want it: It runs off too fast in the extraordinarily heavy rains we can get now; it floods us when the great, slow storms sit on us; snows that used to trickle into the watershed in the spring thaw now run off into the surface water all winter (while out West and around the world, mountain glaciers that fed dry summer land are disappearing). Groundwater is not replenished and runs out during droughts. Forests dry and are prone to wildfire.

Beavers can help by creating landscapes that slow the flooding water, letting it percolate into the ground, stored for dry times. Beavers work like the old soil conservation pond building after the Dust Bowl, like permaculture water management with contoured berms on slopes. Beavers shape the land to manage the water. And beavers are free, except for management costs when they build where they annoy us. (Beaver works are always changing, the braiding streams shift, the beavers sometimes move on, and people want control.)

Most of this book is about reintroduction projects out West, in places where water is scarcer, where overgrazing has hardened and desertified land, and the drying forest burns. Beavers are being considered for healing faltering salmon runs, replenishing municipal watersheds and agricultural groundwater, purifying runoff, catching silt. Cattlemen come around to tolerating beavers – previously regarded as rodents to be exterminated – to enhance their meager streams. In Europe and the British Isles, another species of beaver is being reintroduced, hesitantly, after centuries of absence. The only mention of our well-watered Northeast covers traps for carrying off beavers and the “beaver deceiver” to prevent beavers from blocking ditches and culverts.

Can beavers work for  us, protect our watersheds? Can we work with them and their wayward ways, even in the populated Northeast, and be rewarded by cool, clear-flowing streams, year-round groundwater, flourishing wildlife (and lower the increasing DOT and municipal public works maintenance costs)?

– Beedy Parker, Camden, Maine

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