"Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds" (Crown), by Jim Sterba
The usual hot-button issues such as taxes and zoning are beginning to take a back seat in some communities to disputes that include deer, beavers, feral cats and bears.
Wildlife-related controversies have been springing up in towns throughout the country, pitting neighbor against neighbor, animal-rights activists against biologists and in some cases, even prompting death threats.
In "Nature Wars," Jim Sterba lays out battle lines that emerged after populations of species that declined to near-extinction by the end of the 19th century came roaring back as the nation's forests regenerated and city dwellers moved to the suburbs and exurbs. Farmland reverted to woods and subdivisions, while the ensuing sprawl created hospitable habitat for all sorts of wild creatures.
"It is very likely that more people live in closer proximity to more wild animals and birds in the eastern United States today than anywhere on the planet at any time in history," writes Sterba, a longtime reporter for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
The nation's white-tailed deer population, which sank as low as 350,000 more than a century ago in the face of uncontrolled hunting, rebounded to an estimated 25 million to 40 million by the 1990s. What had been considered an elegant creature became "long-legged rats" linked by researchers to more than 1 million motor vehicle collisions annually and blamed for $850 million in damage to farm crops and forests. They are also carriers of tick-borne Lyme disease, which the author contracted three times in 11 years.
Controlling the size of the deer population poses a monumental problem. Young people prefer computer games and television to hunting, while generations reared on Disney's "Bambi" bristle at the idea that sharpshooters should be hired to thin the herd.
If hunters are fewer in number, trappers are even harder to find. That's been a bonanza for beavers, blamed for the most costly damage by any species. But even as the industrious rodents triggered complaints throughout Massachusetts about damage to structures, trees and water supplies, the state's voters banned the use of an effective trap that kills instantly but that critics depicted as cruel.
Canada geese no longer migrate; instead, they befoul golf courses and soccer fields in their year-round turf, and can be responsible for hundreds of deaths if they are sucked into the engines of a jetliner. Wild turkeys have gone from novelty to nuisance, attacking pedestrians and flying into car windshields. And bears have advanced into populated areas, drawn by easy-to-obtain food.
The author takes issue with the boom in wild bird feeders, seeing it as a manipulation of nature that spreads disease and benefits neither the birds nor the environment. But he reserves his sharpest critiques for activists on behalf of feral cats, numbering up to 100 million and blamed for killing up to 1 billion birds in North America. Those who think the feral animals should be killed, rather than trapped, neutered and released, have been subject to death threats, according to Sterba.
This book is sure to initiate discussion about an issue that seems likely to move closer to the forefront in the years ahead. Sterba's views certainly won't win support in all quarters, but he articulates them forcefully, and he presents solid evidence to back them up.