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2013 Woodland Conversations

Author Says Wildlife Comebacks Pitting Neighbors

Jim Sterba

          The comeback of wildlife and forests over the past century demands that we reconnect to the natural world, said Jim Sterba, author of Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds, in a talk on May 4 at Highstead as part of its Woodland Conversations Lecture Series.

          “We’ve largely taken ourselves out of the working landscape and mostly forsaken the stewardship skills of our ancestors,” he said.

          Sterba, whose book was nominated for an L.A. Times Book Award, said the conservation movement nurtured the return of trees and wild creatures far beyond the dreams of its founders, but the result of that success is more and more people living in close proximity to wild animals than at any time in history.

          “It is wonderful news unless, perhaps, you’re one of 4,000 drivers who will hit a deer today, or your child’s soccer field is carpeted with goose droppings, or coyotes are killing your pets,” he said.

          Conservation successes have resulted in a marvelous abundance of many species and an overabundance of a few, people have become “denatured,” or divorced from their natural surroundings, and neighbors are battling each other over what to do with the natural bounty in their midst.

          “We have more and more wildlife, and we are more and more walled off from it in our modern cocoons, with sound piped into our earplugs and eyes glued to digital screens.”

          People have become divided into “species partisans,” he said, ganging up to save birds from feral cats or to save feral cats from animal shelter deaths, or to save deer from hunters or to regard hunters as suburban heroes who save gardens and forests from deer.

          “Although we’ve learned a lot over the years about the complexity and fragility of ecosystems, these important subtleties are all but lost in the heated battles to save one creature or another,” he said. “People get so embattled saving deer or geese or cats that they can’t even agree on what overabundance means."

          People also have come to regard pets and wild animals as family members, he said, and that attitude is contributing to conflicts with wildlife. Whole industries have sprung up catering to the notion that wild animals are “backyard guests” and around their removal when they become a nuisance.

          “We’re encouraged to think that offering a wild creature food is an act of kindness,” he said. “But when a skunk turns up at the garden party, a wildlife control guy is just a phone call away.”

          He said the seeds of modern-day conflict between people and nature were planted in the wholesale destruction of wildlife and forests shortly after the arrival of Columbus in the 15th century. The fur trade 100 hundred years before the Mayflower decimated the stock of wild animals, and European settlers stripped the landscape of trees for fuel and building materials. Stumps, he said, were a sign of progress. By the 20th century, most wild populations had been reduced to remnants, or worse. A pre-Columbian population of 30 million white-tailed deer had been reduced to less than 500,000.

          By the late 19th century, people were beginning to warn of environmental damage, such as erosion caused by deforestation, and a previously unthinkable notion arose: that the country could run out of trees and wildlife. This triggered a backlash called the conservation movement.

          Over the next century and a half, forests grew back and wildlife proliferated, and people sprawled out of cities and became “indoor” forest dwellers. Forests now cover 60 percent of the land from the Atlantic coast to the prairie, and in New England it’s more than 80 percent. Connecticut alone is the fourth most densely populated state and is 60 percent forested.

          Sterba cited the Harvard Forest study, Wildlands and Woodlands: A Vision for the New England Landscape, in pointing out that the forests of Massachusetts have more wood in them than at any time in the last 200 years, yet residents get less than 2 percent of their wood products from within the Bay State.

         “As David Foster, director of Harvard Forest, puts it: Not since the Mayan collapse 1,200 years ago, when cropland reverted to jungle, have we seen a regrowth of American forests like we’ve seen in the Northeast,” Sterba said.
          Foster, who is also the president of Highstead, calls this the “illusion of preservation.” Using wood means cutting trees somewhere, and in many cases that somewhere is a developing country with weak environmental protection laws, corruption and a much more fragile ecosystem.

          Sterba said he is “happy” to see that Highstead is a leader in the Wildlands and Woodlands Initiative, which he cites in his book’s epilogue. He called the New England-wide vision and collaborative to conserve 70 percent of the forested landscape permanently free from development an “elegant goal” that offers a “rare historic chance to save our forests a second time.”

          While forests grew back over the past century, conservationists ended market hunting, imposed rules on sport hunters and created wildlife refuges, but they didn’t envision sprawl. By 2000, over half the population for the first time no longer lived in cities or on working farms, but in the “vast in-between.”

          As wildlife populations have multiplied and spread, many have encroached on suburbia for the simple reason that our habitat is better than theirs. Sterba said backyards and fast-food dumpsters are “cafeterias” for wildlife.

          “And that’s when elegant creatures get demonized and where many battles in today’s wildlife wars start,” he said.


May 7, 2013