Thursday January 3, 2013

"Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned

Backyards into Battlegrounds"

By Jim Sterba

Having now lived for some time in the semi-rural environment of increasingly forested, increasingly populated, and ever less intensively hunted and trapped southeastern Vermont, we have certainly had our share of untoward wildlife interactions.

A skunk settled into our one-time hen house, although leaving our chickens alone kept quietly diminishing our egg supply. A fisher tore open the neck of one of our cats. Squirrels, chipmunks and raccoons compete for the millet we scatter for the ground-feeding birds. Deer raise much havoc with both our flower garden and our ornamental shrubs, also hindering favorable regeneration in our woodlot and decimating the habitat for ground-nesting birds. And bears have at one time or another destroyed our bird feeder and demolished our compost bin. But after reading this book I see that we have had it easy.

It might be useful to begin with some background on the author. Sterba graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in journalism that in turn led to an eminent career of several decades as a foreign correspondent and national affairs reporter, including especially with the New York Times and then the Wall Street Journal.


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He distinguished himself early on during the Vietnam conflict as a discerning and fearless war correspondent (disclosure: where during my own on-site investigations at that long-ago time we actually happened to meet on several occasions). He then went on to cover various other Asian wars (with the present text thus, in a manner of speaking, representing Sterba’s coverage of yet another war).

With particular relevance to the present book, it is useful to mention that the author grew up in rural Michigan, with farming and hunting experience as a youngster and subsequent college training in forestry, geology, and paleontology. This, together with a great deal of more recent informal study, gave him a superb background for this work.

As Sterba points out, so many plants and animals in the United States (and elsewhere in the world) are now threatened with extinction owing to ever increasing human numbers and their arrogations of land and other demands on the environment, that at first glance it seems paradoxical that the wildlife about which the author rails are becoming an ever more serious problem for us.

Indeed, especially east of the Mississippi much wildlife (particularly our larger animals) had between colonial times and World War II become ever scarcer or even widely extirpated. Then owing to reduced numbers of predators, ever fewer hunters and trappers, a continuing slow resurgence of woodlands both in Vermont and elsewhere in the East and beyond, and protective actions -- even directly supportive ones -- by misguided nature lovers, various animals have in recent times become both over-abundant and less fearful of humans and their artifacts.

The inevitable result has been ever more frequent adverse wildlife/human interactions. Damage by deer has already been alluded to, but they additionally cause huge numbers of serious highway accidents. Growing numbers of Canada geese have lost the desire to migrate, finding conditions amiable to them in parks, playgrounds, golf courses, and the like, where they raise havoc with their droppings. Beaver numbers have bounced back, now producing much damage with their enviable feats of landscape engineering such as costly flooding of septic systems and public roads. And wild turkeys as well as feral nutria, pigs and cats have become serious nuisances in various parts of the country.

The book contains three substantive sections: (1) a sweeping environmental history of North America; (2) descriptions of our major pest species; and (3) an examination of the changing lifestyles and counterproductive attitudes vis-à-vis wildlife of our citizenry. With the book apparently organized along the lines of a traditionally constructed sermon, these three sections (each explained with a several-page introduction) are preceded by a 24-page summary of what is in store for the reader in the main text, and then in turn are followed by a 26-page summary of what the reader should have gained from the main text.

I must make it clear that I am strongly supportive of Sterba’s repeated emphasis on the need to reduce the numbers of the pest species he describes so vividly, as well as on the need for widespread sustained-yield forest management. But he might have also emphasized the additional need -- for the sake of curtailing further species extinctions and for the good of the biosphere in general -- of setting aside in perpetuity perhaps 15 percent of each of our major habitat types.

To conclude, Sterba has provided us with carefully researched environmental insights (there are 39 pages of notes and references and considerable leaning on the wisdom relating to wise land use that has emanated from the Harvard Forest) that have hitherto been insufficiently recognized by the people at large, doing so in a thoughtfully compiled and engagingly presented treatise.

The book is sure to enlighten not only our seemingly ever increasing numbers of incoming Vermont residents, but especially the many troubled urban, suburban, and newly rural inhabitants of the entire eastern third of our country (the author variously viewing that last group as sprawl dwellers or forest people, the latter albeit disconnected from and ignorant of wildlife dynamics and the actual workings of nature).

Moreover, the book should certainly be read and digested by all advanced students and practitioners of environmental conservation. Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold, two of my environmental heroes, would have been pleased with this perceptive no-nonsense analysis by Sterba -- investigative journalism at its best.

The book is available at the Brooks Memorial Library.

Reviewed by Arthur H. Westing of Putney.

For Love of Books is a column written by readers of notable books which may be found in local libraries and bookstores. "Guidelines for Reviewers" may be requested from Brooks Memorial Library at 802-254-5290 or brattlib @brooks.lib.vt.us.