Amidst the horrors of fracking and climate change, America has a mostly unnoticed environmental success story. In his fascinating new book Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds, Jim Sterba — veteran reporter for The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — points out that we have an embarrassment of riches.
Over the past 150 years, there has been a vast re-greening of the landscape from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Plains. Wild species that almost became extinct are now flourishing. Most Americans have become “forest dwellers,” notes Sterba. In the Northeast, people live closer today to “more animals, birds and trees than anywhere on the planet at any time in history.”
Of course, it is a peculiar forest, with roads, highways, parking lots, office parks and shopping centers. But from above, you see a thick canopy of trees. It increasingly feels like home to many deer, beavers, bears and wild turkeys. We provide lots of food, water, shelter and protection for them. There is plenty of grass, gardens, shrubs, birdseed, mulch, yummy garbage and tasty tame pets.
The 2000 Census revealed that for the first time in our history, an absolute majority don’t live in cities or on farms but in the suburban, exurban and rural sprawl in between.
Boulder’s recent encounters with elk and coyotes are not unusual. Sterba says many formerly scarce wild animals have used suburban sprawl to become overabundant, constituting a danger to human beings and other species.
The term “roadkill” is our gruesome joke for the routine slaughter of millions of wild creatures. Upwards of 250 people die and 30,000 are hospitalized each year as a result of these collisions. Between 3,000 and 4,000 deer are killed by motor vehicles per day in this country. Per day.
Deer are gorgeous and graceful saucer-eyed critters that are wonderful to watch. But their population has exploded. They do more than $850 million worth of damage per year to farm crops and forests. They spread Lyme disease. They eat $250 million worth of landscaping, gardens and shrubbery. When they eat plants that grow under large trees, they are damaging songbird habitats and putting some birds at risk.
Suburbanites have divided into “Kill Bambi” and “Save Bambi” factions. After Princeton, N.J., hired sharpshooters to cull its deer population, Sterba notes that “the mayor’s car was splattered with deer guts and the township animal control officer began wearing a bulletproof vest after finding his dog poisoned and his cat crushed to death.”
In Wheaton, Ill., a coyote attacked a small dog and had to be euthanized. When a nuisance wildlife mitigation company killed four coyotes, there were hundreds of protests around the country. There were voicemail death threats. A brick was tossed through a city official’s window. City council members received threats in letters and emails from outside the state. The FBI was called in because it is an illegal terrorist act to use the U.S. Postal Service to make threats.
Defenders of feral cats (between 60 million and 100 million in the U.S.) are waging bitter battles with bird lovers. The American Bird Conservatory said it believes free-roaming cats kill 500 million birds in the United States a year.
Canada geese are taking over public parks, lakes, athletic fields, golf courses and beaches. Their hyperactive digestive system compels them to defecate approximately fives times an hour. Officials of an upstate New York village concerned with an infestation of these geese were confronted with a protest against a “goose Holocaust.”
The total cost of wildlife damage to crops, landscaping and infrastructure in this country now exceeds $28 billion a year, according to Michael Conover of Utah State University, who monitors conflicts between people and wildlife.
We may want to just leave nature alone, but we have become accidental ecosystem managers. We may grimace at the thought of hunters shooting deer, but have grown tolerant of cars regularly killing those same creatures.
Sterba argues that we have to become stewards of nature: “Americans think of wilderness as some pristine place over the mountain, and somehow the landscape we occupy is sullied by our presence. But that landscape is an ecosystem, and we have an obligation to manage it for all its occupants. We’ve made mistakes in the past, but we’ve learned from them — we have a rare second chance to save the forest.”
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.