Leave it to Beaver

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

Every once in awhile, a writer comes upon a book she wishes she had written. For me, this is The Beaver Manifesto, by Glynnis Hood. Hood is Associate Professor at Canada’s University of Alberta. Her slim volume is one of a fantastic series of “manifestos” published by Rocky Mountain Books, and include titles like The Grizzly Manifesto and The Wolf Manifesto.

As I’ve researched my book on climate change and biodiversity in the West, one of the most jaw-dropping of revelations to me has been the beaver. First of all, beaver were the motivation and provided the income for Manifest Destiny; in fact, if the Indians hadn’t shown the Mayflower pilgrims how to trap beaver, they very likely would have starved, and the history of the U.S. would be written differently.

Hood touches on the sorry story of how those forging what is now Canada and the United States voraciously harvested beaver until there were no more. “As an ecologist,” she writes, “I can only imagine what the complete removal of almost all mammalian life from an entire ecosystem would do to the long-term ecology of an area.” The answer to that is: nothing good. To this day Western watersheds are highly degraded, thanks to first of all the extirpation of the beaver and second of all the insertion of cattle on the land in their place.

Hood’s specialty is the natural history of the animal itself, which is fascinating. “Born of an era long before the last Ice Age, it has since survived cycles of global climate change, saber-toothed cats….” Later she says, “How could this little buck-toothed, flat-tailed, furry rodent survive when so many other species failed?” One of the answers is in their remarkable adaptation to both terrestrial and marine environments. They look like any other “furbearer” but beaver have evolved special goggles that allow them to see underwater; and they can even chew underwater. I have seen beaver swimming and they look like big brown fish.

Today, putting beaver back on waterways is a viable and cost-effective way to mitigate impacts from climate change. The work beaver does helps keep ecosystems resilient, better able to withstand both the flooding and the droughts that will increasingly come our way. Beavers get the vaunted “keystone” designation among species who have big impacts on many other levels of the food chain. They are also “ecosystem engineers,” and the actually affect the geomorphology, or the lay of the land, where they ply their trade. I “heart” beaver!

Hood’s writing is light and accessible. She covers all the beaver bases. Her book is small, compact, and easy to read. Hey – Christmas will be here before you know it. The Beaver Manifesto makes a great stocking stuffer.

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