Eager

Ben Goldfarb / Chelsea Green Publishing / 304 pages

The past 400 years were not kind to most populations of wildlife in North America. Overexploitation was rampant, forests were razed, prairies were plowed, and rivers were dammed. As concerns mounted over plummeting numbers of deer, ducks, and other valued species, a burgeoning conservation movement came together to pass laws and preserve habitat, allowing many of these populations to rebound with great success.

However, lost in the shuffle was the beaver, Castor canadensis. In his remarkable book, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb recounts the impact of the fur trade in decimating a continent’s beaver population, followed by the gradual realization of conservationists that this large rodent provided more than the raw materials for men’s hats. Goldfarb traveled to visit “beaver believers” far and wide, and recounts the struggles that these castorid enthusiasts face in making their case for the benefits to ecosystems and society of having robust beaver populations.

Beavers manipulate water dynamics in streams and rivers. This makes them premier ecosystem engineers, as these alterations affect the flow of water through the landscape, with profound impacts on plant and animal diversity and abundance. Goldfarb rightly describes beavers as “ecological and hydrological Swiss Army knives.” What readers of this book will come to understand is that beavers provide so much more than a stick-and-mud dam holding back a small pond containing frogs, turtles, and dragonflies. Over a million years, billions of beavers sculpted the face of North America, earning them the title of grandmaster keystone species.

Today, beaver believers clash with fur trappers, highway departments, agriculturists, and homeowners over the presence of beavers and beaver dams. There is a challenge in managing beavers, especially when, as pointed out by Goldfarb, the benefits of having beavers (such as the expansion of fish and wildlife habitat and the storage of water) accrue to society in general, while individuals suffer the costs: drowned trees, damaged landscaping, plugged irrigation canals, and flooded culverts. There are solutions, but the political will to use them often is lacking.

With Eager, Goldfarb has written a book valuable to both the biologist and the general public. If there is a controversy with beavers in your community, step one is going to be reading this book.

– Robert Schmidt, PhD, AWI Scientific Committee