Monday, November 05, 2012

The Wildlife Among Us

About two and a half decades ago, I was driving a vanload of Boy Scouts home from a service project at night. As we rounded a bend on a mountain road, a large owl appeared in the glow of our headlights, picking at a road kill rabbit. The owl spread its wings, launched itself, and sailed away into the darkness to the sound of oohs and ahs from my amazed passengers.

Nowadays we daily see birds of prey gliding in the air above our town. Hawks and golden eagles are the most common. This was a fairly rare occurrence when I grew up in this area. I now often camp in areas where taking bear precautions is a necessity. Such wariness was never required when I camped in these areas as a youth.

It is not uncommon to see deer wandering through the suburban areas near my home. Some of my neighbors complain that deer regularly kill the ornamental plants in their yards. The inevitable retort I hear when these neighbors voice their concerns is that we should expect this type of behavior, since we have moved into the animals' habitat.

Jim Sterba, who has written a book on human-wildlife interface, disagrees. In this WSJ essay, Sterba argues that the conservation movement that arose as a result of well documented "unbridled exploitation of wild birds and animals for feathers, furs, hides and food by commercial market-hunters and settlers" has been successful to excess.

"We now routinely encounter wild birds and animals that our parents and grandparents rarely saw," writes Sterba. "As their numbers have grown, wild creatures have spread far beyond their historic ranges into new habitats, including ours." Sterba says that the assertion that human-wildlife "conflicts are our fault because we encroached on wildlife habitat is only half the story."

Many wildlife populations in the U.S. are many times larger than they were when European settlers first arrived on these shores. These animal populations don't stay in the wild—not so much due to humans encroaching on their habitat as it is that suburban (and even urban) "habitat is better than theirs. We offer plenty of food, water, shelter and protection. We plant grass, trees, shrubs and gardens, put out birdseed, mulch and garbage."

The toll exacted by wildlife expansion is not trivial. Sterba notes that in the U.S., "the total cost of wildlife damage to crops, landscaping and infrastructure now exceeds $28 billion a year ($1.5 billion from deer-vehicle crashes alone), according to Michael Conover of Utah State University, who monitors conflicts between people and wildlife."

Many people are unwilling to face the realities of how best to manage this situation. People whose "knowledge of nature arrives on screens, where wild animals are often packaged to act like cuddly little people that our Earth Day instincts tell us to protect" are generally unwilling to consider introducing the most effective predation methods to control burgeoning wildlife populations.

Most of our population has grown woefully out of touch with real nature. Maybe they think it's OK for Bambi to be taken down by a wolf or a mountain lion, but they doubtless wouldn't want such predators wandering around their neighborhoods where the 'cute' deer come to dine. They resist as inhumane using the "predator that is already there: us."

Before giving into the cutesy indoctrination about deer, we should realize that they "kill upward of 250 people a year—drivers and passengers—and hospitalize 30,000 more."

Hunting by humans is the most effective, least expensive, and the most feasibly humane method of wildlife population control. Sterba also notes that humans have historically been the main predator of deer and other species. If people can reason through this and get past their squeamishness about hunting, we can talk about ways to best manage hunting to minimize negative impact.

Some areas currently use hired sharpshooters. Conditions in some spots are conducive only to archery rather than firearm hunting. Sterba suggests training hunters from the public in some areas and using public officers such as police in others. The idea is to manage "social carrying capacity," which "means the point at which the damage a creature does outweighs its benefits in the public mind."

In response to past destructive behaviors we have been conditioned to take a heartwarming, overprotective view of wildlife. The result has been a boomerang effect where wildlife is increasingly encroaching on and causing problems in human habitat. Sterba is not calling for a return to the bad days of the past, but a realistic and positive way forward.

It would seem that those that cannot climb out of their socially conditioned cartoon caricature of wildlife are destined to permanently disagree with Sterba, regardless of the cost.

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