“How human encroachment hurts wildlife has been… common knowledge for decades. This knowledge isn’t wrong but it is only half the story.” page 269
My first view of my new North American home was as my plane descended to land in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. I was struck by the verdant summer landscape – from above it looked like a forest – which was odd, because it was then a city of 750,000 people. After reading Nature Wars by Jim Sterba I am not surprised by my puzzled reaction, because as he says, “Three out of four residents [in the Northeast of the United States] live in or near land under enough trees to be called forestland if they weren’t there.” page 52
How can this be true? Haven’t we and our ancestors been busily and irreversibly destroying nature for hundreds, if not thousands of years? Jim Sterba argues that we have certainly changed nature, but not in the ways many of us assume. He reports that a huge regenerated forest stretches from Norfolk, Virginia to Maine, and most of the book is about this area. Modern people like trees, and we like to live among them, so as our houses sprawl further apart in suburbs and exurbs we plant trees in the gaps.
The deforestation of the Northeast was at its peak in the late 1890s. It has taken 100 years for the forest to grow back. We’ve been able to let it grow back because we don’t have our ancestors’ desperate need to use trees for fuel and building materials, and also because we don’t need to farm marginal East Coast land because so much of our food comes from the hugely productive Midwest.
Significantly, with the regenerating forest comes resurgent populations of some of the forest animals. Jim Sterba devotes chapters to the burgeoning populations of beavers, deer, Canada geese, wild turkeys, black bears, and feral cats. All of these, except feral cats, live naturally in this area. Their populations dropped after Europeans came to North America, but they are doing very well under the way modern people manage the landscape. So well, in fact that Jim Sterba notes that some estimates put the population of white tailed deer at the highest it has ever been.
It seems strange that there could be so many large wild animals living among so many people, but I thought of the deer I regularly see and also thought of the deer-car collision I saw in the highway lane next to me. As the wild animal populations have grown and the human population has grown, conflicts are inevitable, accounting for the word War in the title.
When there is a direct conflict of one individual’s or species’ needs over another’s, then inevitably someone doesn’t get their needs met. In the events described in Nature Wars it is not so clear whose needs should come first, and people can vehemently, sometimes violently, disagree. Is it more important for deer to be able to run free or people to be able to successfully grow gardens? This problem has even been addressed in our library collection: Fifty Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants: The Prettiest Annuals, Perennials, Bulbs, and Shrubs That Deer Don’t Eat, by Ruth Rogers Clausen. Or what about when the conflict is between two animal species? Do humans intervene to save the song birds at the expense of the feral cats or let things fall out as they will? For those who say that we should just leave nature alone, Jim Sterba argues Americans “are actively managing the nature around them in ways they barely recognize or think about – with their gardens, lawns, landscapes, mulch bins, garbage cans, bird feeders, pets, cars, and species partisanship, to name a few examples.” page 293. We must accept that we are stewards and caretakers of the land and the animals whether we particularly want to be or not.
In my native New Zealand the isolated islands have a very delicate and unique ecosystem. Introduced cats and dogs wreck havoc on the native birds, so feral cats are generally, and not too controversially, killed in native forests. Jim Sterba points out that in America feral cats have partisans who sometimes resort to death threats of those they feel threaten the cats. The partisans for and against the “Trap, Neuter, Release” program for feral cats are so strident, that the American Veterinary Medical Association refuses to support it or say they don’t support it.
I found this book enlightening and kept saying to myself “Really? That can’t be true!” but Jim Sterba talked to and quotes dozens of working scientists, park rangers, and other experts, and he documents it his research in the extensive notes. Nature Wars will certainly interest people who read nature books, and those who like to garden, bird watch, feed stray cats, drive along deer-free highways or use goose poop-free parks, to name a few. It also provides a unique perspective on the social history of the settlement of the United States. And most importantly it opens up conversations on very contentious issues that aren’t going away.
Check the WRL catalog for Nature Wars