The second half of the 20th century was a great time to be an American. Increasing affluence gave many people the means to spread out into new, purpose-built suburbs, escaping urban areas for a land of single-family homes, tree-lined streets, and well-manicured lawns.
Somewhat ironically, it was also a great time to be a white-tailed deer, wild turkey, Canadian goose or any of the host of animals that were brought to the brink of extinction in the early 1900s by Americans’ insatiable appetite for land to homestead and wild game to eat. The conservation laws pioneered by Theodore Roosevelt more than 100 years ago have been so successful that populations of most wild game are larger now than at any time in the last 150 years. But anyone who has had a skunk die under her house, hit a deer with his car or tried to play through an irate flock of geese on the golf course knows that the resurgence of wildlife is not a completely unqualified success.
The increasingly complex – and costly – relationship between suburban Americans and the wild animals that share their living space is the subject of Jim Sterba’s new book “Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds.” Sterba, a longtime journalist who worked at both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, points out that conflicts between humans and wild animals have consequences beyond a smelly house, a damaged fender or a ruined golf game. He reminds us that the “Miracle on the Hudson” in 2009, when a US Airways passenger jet crashed into the Hudson River, happened not because of mechanical failure or pilot error, but because the plane’s engines ingested several geese. In the U.S., the total cost of wildlife damage to crops, landscaping and infrastructure now exceeds $28 billion a year, with over $1 billion due to car-deer collisions alone. Much of this cost, Sterba argues, stems from our inability to modify the conservation model established by Roosevelt and his contemporaries to acknowledge that wildlife management is no longer something strictly for national parks and forests, but also for suburban cul-de-sacs and airport runways.
The book is full of anecdotes about communities’ repeated failures to come up with lasting solutions to their wildlife problems. The “nature wars” referenced in the book’s title are less about conflicts between humans and wildlife, and more about the political brawling over how to handle problem animal populations in suburban areas. Sometimes, those fights can get ugly. When Princeton, N.J., began culling deer to protect drivers and landscaping, someone who presumably objected to the hunt splattered the mayor’s car with deer innards. Similar scenes have played out in towns across the U.S.
Fundamentally, these fights are about how humans relate to nature. Over the course of American history, people’s attitudes towards nature have been varied and subject to change based on the zeitgeist and circumstances. For Thomas Jefferson, who could watch the sun set from his front porch at Monticello while looking out over a landscape of uninterrupted forest and prairie, nature needed to be tamed in order to build a country. For John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, however, nature was a sacred space, to be held separate from the profane influences of a rapidly modernizing society. For Roosevelt, nature was something that could be packaged in the protective wrapping of national park boundaries.
Today, as suburbs continue their outward sprawl from cities, wildlife populations have rebounded. Nature has infiltrated the backyard, Sterba tells us. Americans need to adapt.