Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Warming to the Subject of Wildlife

As one of my neighbors put it, participants on the listserv for the tree canopied ridges, hills and dales where we live just south of Downtown Durham, North Carolina “warmed” to the subject of wildlife last week.

First they debated whether a somewhat blurry image captured of a large bird on a neighbor’s driveway was a wild turkey or an owl (it appeared to be the former to me.)  Then they debated whether another image taken was a Coyote or a German Shepherd.

The image of a Coyote feasting on a deer carcass was taken in a nearby wetland that to the glee of residents has been reclaimed by fifty-pound semi-aquatic rodents.

Fittingly it was posted just as the selection process was launched for the 9th Annual Beaver Queen Pageant, a June 1st fundraiser for the the urban creek beneficiary of the wetland.

In 1989 as I began the job for which I had been recruited here of jump-starting Durham’s first official community-destination marketing agency, the editorial staff of the local newspaper at the time often used the term “Only in Durham!” as a pejorative.

To me though, it made more sense as a celebration of this very unique community.

Just eight-tenths of a mile from Downtown Durham, Forest Hills where wildlife has been a listserv topic of late, was laid out nearly a hundred years ago as a “suburb” by one of the landscape architects who designed Myers Park in Charlotte.

However, for several reasons, it didn’t really take off until the 1930s about the time the term “sprawl” was first coined.

According to the excellent book Nature Wars, which I read to detox from the election when it was published last November, this was just a few years before farm and ranchland such as where I was raised, peaked in the Unites States at “31 million people living on 6.1 million farms.”

This agricultural landscape formed what author Jim Sterba describes as a donut ring around cities, separating them from forests and wildlife habitat.  Until 1950, the first census after I was born, he notes that “so few people lived in suburbs that “the Census Bureau hadn’t even created a category for them.”

By 1960, 33% of Americans lived in suburbs and by 1970 those living there outnumbered “city dwellers and farmers” combined. The “donut ring” no longer exists and wildlife now roams freely within view of Durham’s Downtown skyline.

We spend the vast majority of our time indoors now, but in 2011, 71.8 million Americans participated in “wildlife watching” including 68.6 million “around-the-home” and 22.5 million on trips away from home.

Nearly three times more people shoot wildlife with a camera than those who hunt in America. In 2012, wildlife watching generated more than $33 billion in spending including $22.5 billion in trip-related spending, far more than hunting.

Growing up on a horse and cattle ranch gave me an appreciation for the importance of science-based wildlife management.  But I also grew up with the “narrative of loss” often still manifested when people politicize wildlife management with knee-jerk reactions or as special interests.

I Must Garden, a company based in nearby Chapel Hill, North Carolina is a nine-year-old “all natural” entry in the swelling “wildlife mitigation industry.”

Secured from local Durham stores such as Stone Brothers & Byrd, Witherspoon, Barnes Supply, Keifer Landscaping and Durham Garden Center, its products help me manage deer, coyote, rabbit and even overzealous squirrels in my miniature urban forest.

However news reports over several years about wildlife as large as 200 lb. black bears in and around Durham neighborhoods are already signaling that a much more comprehensive community-wide strategy is warranted or soon will be.

Many forms of wildlife have long recovered from the time that spawned the “narrative of loss” that has underlain much of our thinking and collective action since the 1960s.

Less special interest politics and better policies including science-based wildlife management have worked to bring many endangered species back, and now that many have reached unhealthy populations, it is still the best approach for managing the increasingly busy intersection of wildlife and humans.

In his book, Sterba notes that the “deerkskin trade” had wiped out the whitetail deer in North Carolina that are now so prolific as I ride my Harley around city streets where I live.   Across the nation, the population was reduced to 1% by 1900 when the first federal wildlife protection laws were passed.

By 1878, efforts to restock whitetail deer were begun in some states.  Today, the population is north of 30 million and without predators has been rapidly multiplying bringing disease and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

For five or six years now, the portions of Duke Forest where I often ride have been closed in the fall to enable controlled bow hunts to manage the deer populations.  There are now 2 million deer in North Carolina and the populations near where I life are five times what is sustainable.

Left unchecked by predators such as coyotes, the beavers celebrated by our pageant in June would rapidly and destructively multiply out of control as they were doing throughout New England states when I first relocated from west of the continental divide to the southeast in 1989.

Durham is a caring community, but this is also an area where we all need to listen carefully to proposals before jumping to conclusions that end up being even more harmful to wildlife.

Nature is not always as self-balancing as we may think, especially today.  We learned that when we took drastic wildlife management actions to bring back so many endangered species.

Soon we may need management of another kind in our communities.

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