BOOKS | Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  November/December 2012:

Nature Wars:  The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds by Jim Sterba   Crown Publishers  (c/o Random House,  1745 Broadway,  New York,  NY 10019), 2012.  336 pages,  hardcover.  $26.00.

Born in 1943,  during the deprivations of World War II and just after the Great Depression, Jim Sterba grew up hunting in rural Michigan. Sterba considers himself a lifelong conservationist, but “conservation” in his formative years meant little more than promoting hunting practices that helped to ensure abundant “game”–albeit for people who hunted for meat, as his family did,  not just for sport,  like the European nobility who originated the conservation movement around 200 years earlier in response to the Industrial Revolution and fencing the grazing commons. Long before Sterba’s lifetime, conservation also came to include preserving endangered species,  at least as a philosophical concept,  but Sterba was 30 before extending wildlife management to “non-game” species became established as national policy by the passage of the U.S. Endangered Species Act and ratification of the United Nations-brokered Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Sterba in Nature Wars:  The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds attributes his differences in perspective from most contemporary environmentalists and animal advocates to the combination of rural background with coming-of-age largely before Walt Disney,  Marlon Perkins,  and other early televised nature program hosts reshaped North American concepts of nature.

Though there is truth in this,  to be noted is that although I am 10 years younger,  I too grew up without television,  have apparently lived much longer in rural and semi-rural neighborhoods than Sterba,  who grew up to write for The Wall Street Journal,  have observed most of the same cultural and ecological transitions, and nonetheless developed a far different perspective. Born into a vegetarian family,  I grew up believing that conflicts with wildlife were to be resolved without killing.  While Sterba learned wildlife observation as a hunter, I learned wildlife observation as a non-lethal problem solver,  including through 10 years of helping to protect the garden patch in rural Quebec where my first wife and mother-in-law grew most of the family food.  I have never had occasion to kill,  injure,  or relocate a wild animal,  or even to build a fence to exclude wildlife.  The tricks are to encourage nuisance animals to relocate and exclude themselves,  and to understand that animals,  like humans,  learn from experience.  No single tactic works every time with every animal.

Despite this basic difference in Sterba’s outlook and mine,  most of the first third of Nature Wars is in my view an excellent history of the past 500 years of ecological change in the Northeast,  making points often made in ANIMAL PEOPLE.  “One study after another forecasts the extinction of more and more mammals,  amphibians, and invertebrates as the human population soars above seven billion,”  Sterba writes.  “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 not only have been nursed back to health but have adjusted unexpectedly to life among people.  This has happened nationwide, but is especially true in the eastern third of the country,  where the majority of Americans live…It is very likely that more people live in closer proximity to more wild animals and birds in the eastern U.S. today than anywhere on the planet at any time in history.

“We are essentially forest dwellers,” Sterba continues.  “If you draw a line around the largest forested region in the contiguous U.S.–the one that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Plains–you will have drawn a line around nearly two-thirds of America’s forests (excluding Alaska’s) and two-thirds of the U.S. population.”

Likewise,  observes Sterba,  while deforestation ravages much of Africa,  the Amazon region,  and Southeast Asia,  “Forests aren’t under assault everywhere.  They have been regenerating in Russia and Europe for decades.”

Summarizing a transition of attitudes occurring parallel to the recovery of forests and wildlife in the developed world,  Sterba explains that “The idea that people had an obligation to be good stewards of the landscape,”  whether clearing land for farming or practicing “conservation” as Sterba understands it,  “was replaced by the belief that if people weren’t around throwing [the environment] out of kilter, a natural balance would prevailŠA complicating extension of the idea of man the despoiler was a resurrected belief that the natural world was a benign place in which creatures lived in harmony with one another.  This idea was in striking contrast to the amorality of a Darwinian nature that was indifferent and random,  its creatures living in a world of predators and prey, struggling to eat,  reproduce,  and survive.  In a benign natural world,  wild animals and birds not only got along with one another but were often portrayed as tame and peaceable,  with human habits and feelings.”  Sterba is correct that many people today fail to appreciate that the so-called balance of nature is more like a succession of pendulum swings than the existence of anything in steady-state harmony,  but appears unaware that ethologists have increasingly established the likenesses of animal and human behavior–both in positive and negative characteristics.

Recoveries of species

Sterba proceeds to review the reintroductions and recoveries of beaver, whitetailed deer,  giant nonmigratory Canada geese,  wild turkeys,  and black bears.

Sterba forthrightly and thoroughly identifies the role of hunting-oriented wildlife management in bringing each of these species back from scarcity to nuisance in less than 50 years, albeit with two noteworthy omissions.

Discussing the introduction of Conibear “quick-kill” traps in the 1950s by the Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals,  now known as Furbearers,  Sterba omits that cofounders George and Bunty Clements did not share the enthusiasm for Conibear traps expressed by another cofounder,  Clara Van Steenwyck.  To the contrary,  George and Bunty Clements recognized that Conibear traps usually work much like the leghold traps they were meant to replace.  During 22 years of acquaintance with George Clements,  ending with his death in 2010, I cannot recall him ever even once defending any method of trapping animals for fur.

Also,  Sterba accurately notes that the January 2009 forced landing of Flight 1549 in the Hudson River all but ended political opposition to massacring giant nonmigratory Canada geese, at least in the greater New York City area.  But Sterba fails to mention that the wrong geese took the blame.  The geese who were sucked into the engines of the ill-fated jet were high-flying true migratory geese,  not the low-flying giants.

The concluding third of Nature Wars appears to document a collapse of capacity for critical thinking,  includes much ranting against the Humane Society of the U.S.,  including for campaigns led by other organizations (notably Friends of Animals),  and appears to recommend the reintroduction of market hunting to control perceived surpluses of urban wildlife.

Sterba dismisses out of hand the evolving technology and increasing success of wildlife contraception.

Sterba discusses roadkill at length, citing some of my 1993 data,  but overlooks that roadkills of many species have declined since then,  largely because roadway design and maintenance has begun to take preventing roadkills into account.

Discussing deer in the Northeast,  Sterba omits that when deer are allowed to eat their way through forest understory,  they move on as soon as they have consumed their food and cover, leaving the understory to recover as bird nesting habitat typically within one growing season. Trying to preserve understory by killing deer actually makes more food for surviving deer available over the winter,  encourages them to twin more often,  keeps more deer in the neighborhood,  and can lead to tindery build-ups of old uneaten understory that helps to stoke wildfires.  Paradoxically,  Sterba earlier discusses some of these same effects in his criticism of hunting-oriented deer management in Michigan.

Sterba accurately explains how the soaring popularity of feeding wild birds is altering bird behavior,  and decries recent epidemics of avian disease spread by the concentrations of birds around backyard feeders, but fails to note that these epidemics started, especially the 1994-2007 spread of Mycoplasma gallisepticum,  immediately after the introduction of neuter/return feral cat control brought about steep declines in the feral cat population,  as measured by animal control intake and roadkill studies.  Indeed,  Sterba contends against the overwhelming weight of evidence that neuter/return has had no effect,  and that the U.S. feral cat population is from five to 10 times higher than any actual data-based study has indicated in more than 20 years.

Sterba claims in support of his position the unsubstantiated remarks,  more than a decade ago,  of a single Florida veterinarian,  and the contentions of the American Bird Conservancy, whose misrepresentations of scientific studies Vox Felina blogger Peter Wolf has practically made a career of debunking,  always with extensive quotations from the actual studies and copious footnotes.  Wolf has already thoroughly debunked this entire section of Nature Wars,  at <>.

Sterba writes early in Nature Wars how in his youth he destroyed wild grapes he viewed as “non-native intruders in a northern spruce forest,”  apparently unaware that the Vikings called the region Vinland after finding wild grapes there.  “In the course of researching this book,  I changed my mind about those entangled vines,”  Sterba concludes.  “I learned how precious meadows are and how much work it takes to keep trees from invading and destroying them. Without the grapes,  the forest would have grabbed that meadow in no time.  Realizing this, I defected to the side of the grapes.  They are growing back and spreading again,  and I am cheering them on.”

Unfortunately,  Sterba has yet to fully recognize and appreciate the positive ecological roles of adaptive wildlife,  including feral wildlife and coyotes,  whom he seems to like as little as feral cats.  His understanding of conservation remains rooted in traditional wildlife management,  without recognition that the great majority of people living in the rejuvenated Northeastern forest have already learned some different ways of living with wild animals,  despite frequent conflict,  and are learning more.  As a society we are only just beginning to resolve conflicts with wildlife without harming animals,  but the degree of success already achieved demonstrates that this is an attainable goal in most cases,  and worthy of pursuit as both a cultural expectation and public policy.          –Merritt Clifton

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