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Feature: Overcoming Our Nature Wars

  • Author:
    Jim Sterba
  • Published:
    Summer 2013
With the dramatic rise of the intersection between humans and wildlife across America, a national writer and columnist calls for common sense solutions. 
Nature Wars, The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds (Random House, 2012) is, in essence, a history of Americans, forests and wildlife from the end of the last Ice Age up to our current mess of too much of a good thing.
We  have burgeoning populations of many wild animal and bird species: some overabundant, like deer; some nuisances, like geese; some causing great damage, like beavers; and some intimidating, like coyotes and bears.  These and other wild populations are growing and spreading in our midst.  They amount to riches we haven’t figured out how to deal with.  So we fight about what to do, if anything.
It is wonderful, in my opinion, to have wildlife around.  You may agree.  Unless, of course, you are one of more than 4,000 drivers who will hit a deer today; goose droppings have rendered your child’s soccer field unplayable; coyotes have snatched your pet; turkeys have plucked out your just-planted seed corn; beavers have chewed down the expensive new birch tree in the front yard; bears have looted your bird feeders and garbage cans…you get the drift.
To be sure, many species are declining, diversity is dwindling, and many species are threatened with extinction.  The wealth of trees and wildlife on our little patch of the planet contrasts sharply with a world that seems to be going in the opposite direction. In fact, in Nature Wars, I make this assertion: it is very likely that more Americans live in closer proximity to more wild animals, birds and trees in the eastern United States than anywhere else on the planet at any time in history.
If that sounds preposterous, I will agree that it is, as we say in journalism, weasel-worded. What, for example, does “closer proximity” mean? Obviously in the past there were more wild animals in many places, but with fewer people among them. Today, there are more people in lots of places but they have taken a toll on the wildlife around them.  Africa has more of both, but it is a very large continent and its human populations are concentrated in some places and wildlife in others. I believe our circumstances are unique in place and time.
In any case, let’s suppose it is true.  How did it happen?
In a nutshell, for the last 175 years or so, much of the land cleared by settlers to farm has become reforested again.  Over the last century, public and private conservation efforts have brought back many wild species that had been ravaged by settlers and commercial hunters and trappers.  And since the end of the Second World War our prosperity has afforded people unmatched opportunities to move out of cramped cities into suburbs, exurbs and beyond. 
Let’s look at these three overlapping events one at a time.
Three-quarters of the original forests in the continental U.S. were in the eastern third of the country—from the Atlantic coast out to the Great Plains.  Settlers cleared away much of them to create cropland and pasture.  For a long time, trees were the only source of fuel and building materials.  Then in the 19th century, beginning in New England, trees began to re-colonize farm land abandoned either because it was marginal or it wasn’t needed.  When tractors came along, horsepower became obsolete. Suddenly, 70 million acres that grew food for horses and other draft animals—one-fourth of all crop land in 1910—wasn’t needed.  Also, yields per acre soared with the use of machines and fertilizers.  Lots of farmers quit for good factory jobs in town with weekends off and vacations.  Trees took a lot of that land back.
Today, roughly 60 percent of the land in the east that experts think was forested in the early 1600s is reforested today.  In New England, it is more than 80 percent.  Of course, they’re not the same forests.  Some people say they’re not “forest” forests because we live in them.  Today, the eastern U.S. contains two-thirds of our forests (excluding Alaska) and two-thirds of our population.  Plus an infrastructure: houses, roads, malls, utility lines, parking lots.  You name it.  All the ingredients of sprawl, plus trees.
Wildlife had a terrible time of it after Columbus.  For the next 400 years, Indians, explorers, traders, and commercial hunters killed off wild animals and birds for profit. They shipped beaver pelts and deer hides to Europe by the tens of millions; they sold wild game meat to butcher shops, restaurants and homes.  They sold feathers to hat makers and pillow-stuffers. Settlers, too, killed off wildlife to feed their families.  The combination of market hunters and family pot hunters killed off most wildlife—leaving scattered remnants of many species.  A few, like the passenger pigeon, were killed off to extinction.
The destruction in the late 19th century (the time of the great slaughter of plains bison) was so egregious it was called an “era of extermination” and it triggered a backlash: the conservation movement.  Market hunting for food, fur and feathers was outlawed.  Wildlife refuges were created and stocked with remnant animals caught and moved in from afar.  A unique wildlife management model was put in place in which wildlife belonged to all citizens and would be managed by government on their behalf. In turn, citizens agreed to abide by new hunting and trapping seasons and limits on how many birds or animals we could harvest.
Since most of the predators—wolves, cougars and bears, for example—had been killed off, and with hunting and trapping regulated, restocked species such as deer and beavers rebounded. 
Sprawl in my book consists of suburbs, exurbs and rural areas where people reside but don’t farm for a living.  After the Second World War, soldiers came home to a tremendous housing shortage, and with government help, houses were built on the edges of cities—and the suburbs, the Levittowns, were born.  People flooded out of crowded, gritty cities into near-in suburbs—then spread farther out.  Roads were improved.  The Interstate Highway system was built, along with beltways around cities. Gas was cheap.  You could get an affordable house with a lawn and shrubs out beyond the cities, off some freeway exit far from town.
By 1960, about a third of the population lived in cities, a third lived on farms and a third lived in suburbs.  In 2000 a milestone was reached: More than half the population, an absolute majority, lived not in cities, not on farms, but in that vast in-between—sprawl.
Conservationists in the 19th century didn’t conceive of sprawl.  How could they? No one had lived like this before.  It wasn’t until late in the 20th century that the people in charge of bringing wild populations back to health—mainly state and federal specialists in the developing science of wildlife management—began to see that sprawling people and rebounding wildlife were on a collision course. 
Some people say that because we encroached into wildlife habitat, today’s problems with wild species are our fault.  That’s true, we encroached, mainly into old farm land.  But that’s only half the story.  The other half is that wildlife encroached right back on us.  Lots of species adapted with surprising ease to life in the sprawl, to living around people. 
They did it because our habitat is better than theirs, in many cases.
 Take white-tailed deer.  They flourish in a mosaic of forests and fields with hiding, feeding, watering and resting places—lots of so-called “edges.”  Dr. William McShea at the National Zoo calls sprawl “deer nirvana.”  We grow all sorts of food for them—lawns, gardens, shrubs—and largely protect them from predation by discouraging hunting in the name of safety.
Take Canada geese.  Same thing.  Golf courses, parks, playing fields, corporate parks offer lots of food (grass), long sightlines for spotting predators, and roosting ponds and lakes for keeping predators away.
Take coyotes.  Until recently, coyotes were thought to be people-shy.  But as they turn up in the sprawl, they quickly learn they have nothing to fear from man, and much to gain. They can snack on a cat or a small dog.  Learning that, they move in farther.  That’s why Stan Gehrt of Ohio State estimates there are 2,000 in Chicago, some even living near the Loop.
Take wild turkeys.  A few years ago, nobody thought they could adapt to suburban life. Now they’re intimidating kids and mailmen.
What to do?  A lot of people say do nothing: let nature take its course.  Trouble is, people are ubiquitous on the landscape, manipulating nature all the time.
Other people who are against humans using lethal means to control overabundant or nuisance populations of deer, for example, are for bringing back the whitetails’ natural predators.  Great idea.  Coyotes and black bears are deer predators and they are increasing around us.  They kill fawns, mostly, and not enough to have much impact.  Wolves and cougars are big deer predators.  They depend on deer as a major food source.  And they are gradually moving east and south as their populations grow and expand.  But they won’t be where they can do much good anytime soon. Besides, people have to ask themselves whether they really want mountain lions and wolf packs roaming their neighborhoods.
There is one other deer predator worth mentioning.  Studies indicate that since the end of the last Ice Age this predator has been the top predator of whitetails—probably killing more deer annually than all the other deer predators combined.  This predator is us.
Do we still have an impact?  Hunters kill about 6 million deer a year.  Drivers kill another 1 to 2 million.  Let’s say other predators, disease, and so on kill another 6 million.  That’s 12 to 14 million dead deer a year.  That’s good deer management in some places, especially rural areas.  Deer populations are kept in line with the ecological carrying capacity of the landscape, but not so low that hunters grumble, as many do anyway, about too few deer.
In the sprawl, where deer populations are growing fastest, modern man has largely taken himself out of the predation business.  To discourage hunting and encourage safety, sprawl man has plastered his landscape with firearms restrictions.  In Massachusetts, for example, it’s illegal to discharge a firearm within 150 feet of a hard-surfaced road or within 500 feet of an occupied dwelling (without written permission). These rules alone make about 60 percent of the state’s landscape off-limits to hunting with guns.  Local laws further restrict hunting, even with bows and arrows.  The rules are similar in many states.
What this means is that in just the last few decades, and for the first time in 11,000 years, huge swaths of land in the heart of the white-tailed deer’s historic range, are off-limits to its biggest predator.
The irony is that hunters are relatively safe.  While guns kill 31,000 people a year, hunters kill 100, mainly each other.  Deer, on the other hand, kill an estimated 250 people annually, mainly drivers, and put 30,000 more in the hospital.
 People against using lethal means of population control often advocate birth control.  That’s another good idea that doesn’t quite yet work.
For deer, effective and affordable contraception was just around the corner 30 years ago.  It still is.  Put deer behind a fence, or on an island, and it will work—at a cost of several hundred dollars per doe per year.  For free-ranging herds, forget it.
For Canada geese, relatively new contraceptive pellets currently cost about $12 per goose per year.  Do the math.  I don’t know how effective they are.
For feral cats, defenders practice a seemingly miraculous sterilization effort called TNR, for trap neuter, return.  Volunteers catch cats, vets spay females and castrate males.  Then the cats are returned to where they were caught to live in a “managed colony” as “community” cats.  Bird groups call this re-abandonment and say to put these non-native mid-sized predators back on the landscape to kill birds and other small creatures is unconscionable.  The American Veterinary Medical Association neither endorses nor opposes TNR because, it says, with an estimated 86 million feral cats out there, all the TNR volunteer efforts amount to a drop in the bucket in an ocean of need.
Another argument against lethal control is called the vacuum effect:  If you kill out animals from where they live, new ones will move into the same space.  Again, true—eventually.  In the case of deer, studies show it takes years for outside animals to move in.  Young bears and beavers get kicked out of their home turf by parents as yearlings, so they go looking for an unoccupied habitat.  The vacuum is filled, but in the meantime—perhaps many years—your problem is resolved.
Apply the logic of the vacuum effect to garden.  More people garden than do any other outdoor activity.  Gardening is the most intense form of human landscape management I know.  We control the garden for the outcomes we desire: producing tomatoes or petunias or whatever.  To facilitate growth of what we want we remove things we don’t want: weeds.  Why pull weeds if new weeds are going to move in?
Weeds are plants not animals, of course.
Well, what about rats in your basement?  Why trap them if new ones will eventually move in?  Because we long ago demonized rats as disease-carrying vermin. It is a tragedy, in my opinion, that we have let our deer population get so out of control that we’ve demonized these elegant ungulates into long-legged rats.     
Jim Sterba, ’66, grew up in rural Michigan, is a graduate and distinguished alumnus of Michigan State University, and has worked as a foreign correspondent and national reporter for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal for more than four decades.  He covered the Vietnam war, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Chinese crackdown at Tiananmen Square.  Nature Wars is his second book.  His first, Frankie’s Place: A Love Story, is about summers on Mt. Desert Island in Maine with his wife, the author Frances FitzGerald.  Both books can be ordered from his website