DO WE SEE MORE WILD ANIMALS AT HOME?
by Whit Gibbons
March 2, 2008
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.
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
actually on the increase in suburban America? Or is the apparent increase
a matter of perception? Yes and yes.
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.
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
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.
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.
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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