Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Lion and tigers and bears . . .

We hear a lot about people coming into conflict with wildlife in the west, mostly because former city slickers are building fancy houses on the edge of the wilderness, and also because some of the age old confrontations between ranchers and predators are heating up again as the culture has grown fonder of wolves -- at least in places where people don't have to deal with wolves personally, but those folks do vote.

Here in the east we have almost the opposite problem -- large mammals, herbivorous and carnivorous, are expanding back into their old ranges and are increasingly showing up even in fairly densely populated areas. Growing residential sprawl and the increasing numbers of people living in formerly rural areas who do not have a heritage of close relationship with the land contribute to our difficulties, but in sometimes odd ways.

When I was growing up, I thought coyotes were exotic creatures of the southwestern desert. Now they're as familiar to New Englanders as grey squirrels. A couple of weeks ago, a coyote lunched on a Dandie Dinmont terrier within the Boston city limits. Of course, this was front page news, and led to all sorts of sturm und drang, although obviously cute little dogs get squashed by automobiles every day.

My farmer friends in eastern Connecticut -- and yours truly as a wannabe -- are in a state of war with white-tailed deer. I have read that there are more deer today than before the Europeans came. I talked with some farmers about it yesterday and the situation is becoming absurd. My friend who I will call Festus (about whom I expect to write more) has been forced to fence his entire property with 14-foot wire mesh on wooden posts. A lot of local farmers use electric fencing but Festus prefers low-tech.

The absurd part is that these stockbrokers and cardiologists who buy places out in the woods so they can get back to nature on the weekends actually feed the deer. You can go into the grain store and there are bags marked "deer feed." That's like people in the city feeding the rats. I find it completely incomprehensible. Aren't they content to let Bambi eat their rhodendrons?

The main on-topic public health issue here is Lyme disease. I figured I'd better throw that in to keep myself legit. Deer are the [correction: one -- thanks C. Corax] non-human reservoir for the disease, which is transmitted by ticks. It's pretty much impossible to spend any time in the Connecticut woods these days without getting Lyme disease. Festus gets it every year, each year a little more mildly, so he just accepts it as a fact of life. Some people's immune systems can't cope with it however, and they become chronically ill and need a carpet bombing with antibiotics. The deer overpopulation is killing us.

I can't even pull into my driveway without flushing a deer. I've had to wrap all my pear trees in fencing and enclose my field, which cost me $500 for materials and probably won't be adequate. In fact, when I got there yesterday they had managed to knock down part of the fence and even pull down a section that I had nailed to trees.

However, that may be the least dramatic development. In the Rhode Island/Connecticut border region we once again have moose. Historically, they migrated this far south, and the village of Moosup, near my place, is named after their traditional stopping place before they turned back north in the spring. They had disappeared for most of a century, but now they're back. Festus had a moose come through and wipe out 130 feet of beets, leaving behind great steaming piles of manure which was considerate, but insufficient payment.

The turkeys, which I never saw in my youth, are now ubiquitous. I even saw a turkey in Brookline, on the golf course. The fisher cats and bobcats are back. Oh yeah, black bears. I'm glad for all that, even though the turkeys are also a pain in the neck to farmers, but then there's the Big One. Everywhere you go in the rural east, from the Carolinas to Maine, there are rumors and more than rumors that the mountain lion, the catamount, the panther, is back. The campesinos tell the same story -- there have been sightings, dead cattle, but the authorities are covering it up.

I said to Festus, I'm glad for the coyotes and bobcats, they might pick off a faun once in a while, but if we do have lions, there will be unpleasant repercussions. Festus told me to stop worrying because it's too late, they are around, there have already been repercussions, but the state is keeping it quiet. He seems pretty sure of himself. The problem with Felis concolor is that they have been known to eat not just pesky deer and livestock, but Homo sapiens. The invading flatlanders, standing on out on their decks fattening up Bambi and friends with store-bought corn, aren't going to put up with that and they will demand that SOMETHING BE DONE. They aren't gonna like the bears much either, although that is more out of ignorance. Ecologically speaking, black bears are giant racoons, but they are kind of scary.

Now, it's a long story why this is happening, which I may go into another time. On the one hand, I'm very glad about it. I have wished for a recovery of wildlife in the northeast all my life, even though it complicates my life now. But the political repercussions are getting even more complicated, and worrisome. The flatlanders are invading the countryside at the same time as the creatures who were, of course, there first but had been temporarily expelled. They aren't gonna get along but the flatlanders have very strange ideas of what to do about it. They hate deer hunters but they also hate the coyotes, and they sure as hell aren't going to put up with panthers. They won't allow the towns to cull the deer herds but they won't stand for natural predation either.

They're also going to insist that the police and game wardens hunt down the moose and bears, shoot them with tranquilizers, and ship them somewhere else. After a while that's going to get hopeless. Listen up folks -- if you want to go back to nature, you really have to mean it. It's not a theme park.

No comments: