In 1750, not a single beaver lived in Massachusetts, the animal having been wiped out of the colony by the trans-Atlantic fur trade. Fast-forward to today, and Massachusetts is home to an estimated 70,000 beavers. The story is much the same for a variety of other birds and animals that were once on the brink of extinction. There at least 25 million white-tailed deer in the United States. About 1 million black bears roam the woods. As many as 10 million Canada geese live sedentary lifestyles on ball fields and golf courses. Turkeys have reappeared and coyotes have vastly expanded their range. These species have found the wooded environs of the eastern US to be a perfect habitat in which to thrive – a region, of course, that also happens to be the mostly densely human-populated area of the continent. “It is very likely,” writes Jim Sterba in Nature Wars, “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.”
These wildlife comebacks would seem an unalloyed ecological restoration success story – unless you’re a suburban homeowner whose property has been flooded by a family of beavers. Or your vegetable garden got eaten by a herd of deer. Or a flock of geese made your kids’ playground a minefield of bird shit. Or you have a bear rummaging through the trash and your cat got eaten by a coyote. Denatured American suburbanites, Sterba says, might like the idea of animals – all cute and cuddly – but when they find themselves actually living among them, things get messy.
How did this unprecedented wildlife return happen? For starters, the trees came back. By the close of the nineteenth century much of the eastern US had been deforested, robbing animals of the habitats they needed. Then a string of successful conservation campaigns, a shift from burning wood to fossil fuels, and the abandonment of farms as people moved to the cities allowed the forest to creep back. “In the eastern third of the country,” Sterba writes, “between 1910 and 1959, an estimated 43.8 million acres of farmland reverted to forest.” Take a flight from Albany to Boston and you mostly see forest, with the homes of people dotted among the trees.
At the same time, many animals’ predators disappeared. Yes, this means cougars and wolves, which were exterminated by bounty hunters in the nineteenth century. But more important was the disappearance of the human predator. Long before Europeans arrived, Native American hunting was the most important check on the populations of beaver and deer. Well into the twentieth century, white farmers continued to hunt and trap, both to fill their soup pots and to keep animals out of their fields. Today, hunting is a tradition in decline and, in fact, outlawed in many communities; suburbanites don’t like the sound of shotguns in the back woodlot. It didn’t take long – really only a couple of human generations – for animals to get the message and move back in.
“And that is when relations between man and beast began to go awry,” Sterba writes. The conflicts Sterba charts aren’t just between “man and beast,” but more often are among people, as communities become divided over how to deal with their cohabitants. Some folks want to start shooting or trapping what they view as pests. Other people say that’s cruel and unnecessary. A few voices argue for “letting nature be.” Usually the whole thing becomes a highly scripted media circus.
In telling this story, Sterba, a flint-eyed former Wall Street Journal reporter, is at times excessively harsh toward the tender hearted suburbanites opposed to lethal animal control methods. But his central point is sound: Too many people have gone too far in romanticizing animals – and that makes it difficult to think clearly about how best to manage our involvement with other species. When every deer is Bambi, sound ecosystem stewardship becomes impossible.
Really, the issue isn’t that relations between humans and animals “went awry.” It’s that they resumed at all. For decades most Americans had so few interactions with wild animals that it became easy to get sentimental about them. But as soon as the intimacy returned, most of us quickly got annoyed.
The problem here isn’t the animals – it’s us. The beaver and bears are just following their instincts, after all. To strike an accommodation with them, we will have to adjust our own expectations. No doubt that will be trying. But that’s how the intimacy of cohabitation works: It requires patience, flexibility and, above all, generosity.
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