The enemy has penetrated my home territory. You can’t move through the yard without stepping in goose poop, thanks to three adults and eight youngsters that feed in the yard every day.
Turkeys and deer consume our raspberries while beavers march right into the yard to steal our apples before trying to chop down our apple trees. Woodchucks eat what the rest leave behind.
So I turned to a new book by Jim Sterba, “Nature Wars,” for answers. How did we come to be overrun with these wild beasts? From the sad to the sensational, Sterba tells us how and why burgeoning wildlife populations have “turned backyards into battlegrounds.”
The book is timely for us, as Maine approaches its second referendum on bear hunting in a decade. In fact, Sterba presents an account of Maine’s 2004 bear referendum in his chapter about bears, appropriated titled “Teddies.”
Every chapter contains important lessons about how poorly we have managed wildlife populations, to the point that we are literally overrun with them. It covers the entire landscape of issues from sprawl to stupidity. This is truth-telling at its finest, with plenty of statistics and case studies to prove his points and leave you alarmed.
Sterba was a foreign correspondent and national reporter for more than 40 years for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. And he has many Maine connections, including the summer residence that he and his wife enjoy on the coast near Bar Harbor.
Let’s dip into the chapter about beavers. We learn that “many experts believe that the cost of beaver damage is greater than that caused by any other wildlife species in the United States.”
Massachusetts voters banned trapping in 1996. “Emotion ruled over science, and that’s a real problem for wildlife management in this country,” said Rob Deblinger, an assistant director of MassWildlife. The result was predictable. A lot more beavers. A lot more problems. A lot more money spent to reduce out-of-control beaver populations.
I really enjoyed the history of each critter profiled in the book, such as this: “Americans who think trapping is inhumane and wearing fur is repugnant might be astonished to learn how important a role beavers played in North American history: The exploration and conquest of the northern United States and Canada were propelled in large part by the economic rewards of finding, catching, killing, eviscerating and skinning these fifty-pound aquatic rodents.”
Alas, the economic value was too great and the beaver population was decimated. By 1894, New York’s Adirondack Mountains had only a single colony of five beavers left. Only about 100,000 were present on the entire North American continent. Wildlife officials began rebuilding the beaver population, starting with the release of 34 animals in the early 1900s in the Adirondacks.
Boy, were they successful! There are five beaver houses along the small stream that flows for three miles from my house to West Mount Vernon. Beaver once cut down an apple tree right on my front lawn. One night, I almost ran over a huge beaver right in the driveway, a big red apple in his mouth.
Which brings up another topic in Sterba’s book: roadkill. This is serious stuff. People are dying. “Indeed, the million-plus (vehicle-deer) crashes resulted in more than two hundred human fatalities a year, on average, and another twenty-nine thousand people injured enough to require hospitalization,” reports Sterba. Damage to vehicles is estimated at $1.5 billion.
The nation’s deer population now numbers more than 40 million, up from an historic low of 350,000 animals in the late 1800s. “What we know definitely is that white-tailed deer populations are exploding, and we don’t have enough hunters (in many places) to reduce these populations. This sets up a major train wreck for deer-human conflicts if we don’t come up with an alternative,” said Terr Messmer, a wildlife damage specialist at Utah State’s Berryman Institute.
Sterba wraps it all up for us: “This book is not about environmental loss or dire straights. It is about too much of a good thing in the United States. … In our little corner of the planet, the losses have been eclipsed for a moment by a regrowth of forests and an overabundance of some wild species. Our battles over critters and trees are mainly about how to deal with excess, and while they are being fought we tolerate enormous cost and waste — because we can afford to.”
In Maine, I’m not sure of that.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352, or georgesmith [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.