George's Outdoor Picks - Nature Wars

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Blog posts labeled “George’s Outdoor Picks” will tell you about my favorite things from books to bullets to binoculars, fly rods to flashlights, focusing on what’s new. I do get a lot of products to try, some great, some good, some not so good. In these posts, I’ll only be telling you about the best. Each Pick post will include a photo of my super-large toothbrush, perfect for anyone with a big mouth!

 

Jim Sterba’s Nature Wars 

Published in 2012 by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House

 

Nature Wars will entertain and educate you. From the sad to the sensational, Jim Sterba tells us how and why burgeoning wildlife populations have “turned backyards into battlegrounds.” The book is very timely as Maine approaches its second referendum on bear hunting in a decade. In fact, Sterba presents an account on Maine’s 2004 bear referendum in his chapter on bears, appropriated titled “Teddies.”

I can’t say it any better than Tom Brokaw does on the book’s cover: “It’s a jungle out there – and we’re living in it. Jim Sterba’s Nature Wars is a smart, stylish, and altogether provocative account of how we are confounded by that which we claim to hold so dear – Mother Nature and all her creatures moving in right next door.”

Every chapter contains important lessons in how poorly we have managed wildlife populations, to the point that we are literally overrun. Its covers the entire landscape of issues from sprawl to stupidity. This is truth telling at its finest, with plenty of statistics and case studies to prove his points and leave you very alarmed.

I used up a highlighter outlining my favorite parts the book which will serve as a reference for me for many columns to come.

Sterba was a foreign correspondent and national reporter for more than 40 years for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. And he has many Maine connections including the summer residence that he and his wife enjoy on the coast near Bar Harbor.

Let’s dip into the chapter on beaver. We learn that “many experts believe that the cost of beaver damage is greater than that caused by any other wildlife species in the United States.”

You may know that the voters of Massachusetts banned trapping in 1996. “Emotion ruled over science, and that’s a real problem for wildlife management in this country,” said Rob Deblinger, an assistant director of MassWildlife. The result was predictable. A lot more beavers. A lot more problems. A lot more money spent.

I really enjoyed the history of each critter profiled in the book, such as this: “Americans who think trapping is inhumane and wearing fur is repugnant might be astonished to learn how important a role beavers played in North American history: The exploration and conquest of the northern United States and Canada were propelled in large part by the economic rewards of finding, catching, killing, eviscerating, and skinning these fifty-pound aquatic rodents.”

The beaver was so important that New York City’s official seal, created in 1686, features an eagle, a European sailor, an Algonquin Indian, and two beavers. I guess they were too important, because their populations were decimated.

By 1894, New York’s Adirondack Mountains had only a single colony of five beavers left. Only about 100,000 were left on the entire North American continent. Wildlife officials began rebuilding the beaver population, starting with the release of 34 animals in the early 1900s in the Adirondacks.

Boy, were they successful! There are five beaver houses along the small stream that flows for three miles from my house to West Mount Vernon. Beaver have cut down apple trees right on my front lawn. One night I almost ran over a huge beaver right in the driveway, a big red apple in his mouth.

Which brings up another topic in Sterba’s book: roadkill. This is serious stuff. People are dying. “Indeed, the million-plus (vehicle-deer) crashes resulted in more than two hundred human fatalities a year, on average, and another twenty-nine thousand people injured enough to require hospitalization.” Damage to vehicles is estimated at $1.5 billion.

I really enjoyed the chapter on feral cats, and was particularly interested in the chapter on what Sterba calls an “epidemic of trees.” He catalogs the growth of forests throughout the nation, most especially here in the northeast.

Even in his little corner of Maine, Sterba reports that “Mount Desert looks as if it is very much part of the ‘North Woods” – a thick forest of evergreens interspersed with mixed hardwoods and dotted with ponds and cedar swamps… Newcomers like me had difficulty believing that in 1880 this island was a pastoral country side of hay meadows, livestock pastures and cropland, trees here and there, and forest hugging the steep sides of mountains off in the distance.”

Of the original 34,000 acres of ‘improved’ acres, less than 10 percent remains cleared land, Sterba tells us, mirroring my own experience in Mount Vernon. Seventy five years ago about 75 percent of my town was cleared land. Today our 25,000 acres includes only 700 acres of cleared land.

You will of course be fascinated by the chapter on White-tail Deer. “(America’s 10 million deer hunters are) an informal army equal to the manpower in the ten largest armed forces in the world – China, United States, India, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, Pakistan, Turkey, and Vietnam – combined. Pennsylvania alone fields a force of deer hunters twice the size of the U.S. Army,” reports Sterba.

Yet this army is not enough to slow down the out-of-control population growth of deer, now estimated to number more than 40 million, up from an historic low of 350,000 animals in the late 1800s. “What we know definitely is that white-tailed deer populations are exploding, and we don’t have enough hunters (in many places) to reduce these populations. This sets up a major train wreck for deer-human conflicts if we don’t come up with an alternative,” said Terr Messmer, a wildlife damage specialist at Utah State’s Berryman Institute.

Sterba explores the interesting possibility of turning wild venison into a marketable commodity. Wild venison is “free-range, grass-fed, organic, locally produced, locally harvested, sustainable, native, low-stress, low-impact, humanely slaughtered meat,” reported Steven Rinella in a 2007 New York Times op-ed article. “It seems like a good solution,” noted Serba, “but it probably won’t happen anytime soon.” He’s got that right, at least in Maine where we’re trying to rebuild a diminished deer herd.

Sterba wraps it all up for us: “This book is not about environmental loss or dire straights. It is about too much of a good thing in the United States… In our little corner of the planet, the losses have been eclipsed for a moment by a regrowth of forests and an overabundance of some wild species. Our battles over critters and trees are mainly about how to deal with excess, and while they are being fought we tolerate enormous cost and waste – because we can afford to.”

As we approach another contentious public debate about bear hunting and trapping, I urge you to read this book, and spread the word!

The book can be purchased at several online sources. Go to www.jimsterba.com. On page one, in the lower left corner, four places are listed where you can purchase the book.

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