Being a human being in the twenty-first century means you sometimes have to share your space with plants and animals. Especially if you live on the east coast of the United States.
In the nineteenth century, an incredible turnaround took place that helped to reverse the endangerment that some animal species were facing after hundreds of years of settler activity in America. Nature Wars(Broadway Books, 2013), by Jim Sterba, focuses in on how urban sprawl affected conservationists’ efforts to preserve life. This excerpt, which discusses how humans in North America are living in closer proximity to more wild animals than ever before, is from the Introduction.
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The world is full of dire environmental reports. Many species of flora and fauna are threatened, more than 600 birds and animals are listed by the Federal government as endangered, and everywhere you look their habitat is being carved up or paved over by man. Ominous threats loom, climate change being the latest and, perhaps, greatest. One study after another forecast the extinction of more and more mammals, amphibians and invertebrates as the human population growth soars above seven billion.
Yet what is striking is how many wild species, large and small, have come back – from near-extinction in some cases. They aren’t all back, of course, but many animal and bird populations have only been nursed back to health but have adjusted unexpectedly to life among people. This has happened nationwide, but it is especially true in the eastern third of the country, where the majority of Americans live. Along the east coast, for example, a densely-populated urban corridor stretches 700 miles from Portland, Maine, to Norfolk, Virginia. That corridor contains one city after another, with overlapping suburbs, and exurbs, splotches of rural sprawl, and growing populations 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. This region’s combination of wild animals, birds, and people is unique in time and place, the result of a vast but largely unnoticed re-growth of forests, the return of wildlife to the land, and the movement of people deeper into the exurban countryside.
People now share the landscape with millions of deer, geese, wild turkeys, coyotes and beavers, thousands of bears, moose, and raptors, formerly domesticated feral pigs and cats, and uncountable numbers of small wild animals and birds. And more are on the way, moving in among us as their populations thrive and spread to regions where they hadn’t been seen for centuries – in some cases far beyond their historic ranges.
Before Columbus arrived, for example, a few million Native Americans and perhaps 30 million white-tailed deer lived in the eastern forests – the heart of the whitetail’s historic range in North America. Today in the same region there are more than 200 million people and 30 million deer, if not more. I have seen neighborhoods so fenced to keep out deer that their residents joke of living in prisoner-of-war camps.
This is a new way of living for both man and beast, and Americans haven’t figured out how to do it. People have very different ideas about what to do, if anything, about the wild creatures in their midst, even when they are causing problems. Enjoy them? Adjust to them? Move them? Remove them? Relations between people and wildlife have never been more confused, complicated, or conflicted...
Over generations, hand-me-down knowledge of good stewardship and the know-how of the working landscape were lost to many because they were no longer needed. The arts of animal husbandry and farming were forgotten by most modern Americans, as were the woodsman skills of logging, stalking, hunting, and trapping. Both the Handbook for Boys and The Whole Earth Catalog, which passed along outdoor know-how and subsistence skills and crafts to generations, seem charmingly quaint. These skills weren’t simply forgotten, they were forsaken…They became reluctant stewards.
Adapted from the book Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds by Jim Sterba. Copyright © 2013 by Jim Sterba. Published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Buy this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Nature Wars.