by Whit Gibbons

March 2, 2008

My friend Bob told me last week about an unexpected nature scene. "We drove into our driveway and two deer were standing in the yard! We've lived in this neighborhood for twenty years and have never before seen a deer."

He was clearly pleased and excited about the prospect of living in a miniversion of Busch Gardens, with deer roaming around. He was a little less enthusiastic when I asked if his camellias and azaleas had buds. "They'll eat all your shrubs and flowers, except daffodils," I noted.

Despite the threat to our gardens, such wildlife sightings can be an exhilarating experience, and they seem to be on the increase. Deer and coyotes are more prevalent in suburban neighborhoods than they once were. Rabbits, raccoons, possums, and gray foxes make many more appearances than they did two decades ago. And armadillos have unquestionably moved north of I-20 in the eastern states and do not mind visiting suburban areas. With spring almost here, we can expect more wildlife encounters over the next few weeks.

Is wildlife actually on the increase in suburban America? Or is the apparent increase a matter of perception? Yes and yes.

Today many people view wildlife as an acceptable and valuable component of our environment, an attitude less prevalent in earlier generations. Seeing a wild mammal bigger than a squirrel is noteworthy, and people mention the sighting to others. But the presence of large mammals in America's suburbs is more than perception. More mammals actually live there.

At least four factors account for the increase in animal numbers in many towns across the nation. First, population sizes of some game species have increased notably in recent decades. To the credit of federal and state wildlife agencies, more white-tail deer probably live in the eastern states today than a century ago, in part due to land management programs that optimize habitat for deer. Likewise, efforts by the National Wild Turkey Federation have substantially increased population levels and distribution of wild turkeys.

A second reason for the abundance of wildlife in neighborhoods is that some species have adjusted to suburban conditions. Possums, raccoons, and foxes can learn which dogs are likely to leave food in their backyard bowls. Nighttime raids when the dog is inside could then become routine. Also, game species such as deer, turkey, and doves that inhabit wooded residential areas during hunting seasons are unlikely to be shot.

Third, most older suburban neighborhoods are more heavily vegetated with mature trees and shrubs than when they were first developed, providing miniforest habitats in which larger species of mammals can hide. Along with a greater availability of suitable habitat for some species has been a change in attitudes about discharging firearms in residential areas and shooting species not regulated by game laws. Shooting a wild animal in a populated neighborhood is likely to incur the wrath of the neighbors and may well be against the law.

But I think the major reason we actually see more large wildlife is because of leash laws. Many communities require a dog that ventures out of its own yard to be on a leash. Think back to a time when dogs roamed at will in neighborhoods. These wide-ranging dogs would eventually sniff out and chase rabbits, foxes, and other large mammals. So the wild animals stayed in areas less populated by people--and their dogs. Today, a wild mammal can climb over a fence to eat dog food, yet safely reside in a heavily vegetated yard with no dog. So when Bob asked what he could do about the deer-eating-shrubbery problem, I suggested a solution: Banish leash laws.

Meanwhile, what do we do when we find an animal we do not want in the yard, such as a coyote or a possibly rabid raccoon? Most communities have animal control units that can be called to remove nuisance or suspicious-acting animals. But for the most part, we should just enjoy the show and consider the presence of wildlife as a sign of an area's environmental health. It's cheaper than a visit to Busch Gardens.

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