by Jim Sterba
(c/o Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019),
2012. 336 pages, hardcover. $26.00.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Born in 1943, during the deprivations of World War II and just after the Great Depression, Jim Sterba grew up hunting in rural Michigan. Sterba considers himself a lifelong conservationist, but “conservation” in his formative years meant little more than promoting hunting practices that helped to ensure abundant “game”–albeit for people who hunted for meat, as his family did, not just for sport, like the European nobility who originated the conservation movement around 200 years earlier in response to the Industrial Revolution and fencing the grazing commons.
Long before Sterba’s lifetime, conservation also came to include preserving endangered species, at least as a philosophical concept, but Sterba was 30 before extending wildlife management to “non-game” species became established as national policy by the passage of the U.S. Endangered Species Act and ratification of the United Nations-brokered Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Sterba in Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds attributes his differences in perspective from most contemporary environmentalists and animal advocates to the combination of rural background with coming-of-age largely before Walt Disney, Marlon Perkins, and other early televised nature program hosts reshaped North American concepts of nature.
Though there is truth in this, to be noted is that although I am 10 years younger, I too grew up without television, have apparently lived much longer in rural and semi-rural neighborhoods than Sterba, who grew up to write for The Wall Street Journal, have observed most of the same cultural and ecological transitions, and nonetheless developed a far different perspective. Born into a vegetarian family, I grew up believing that conflicts with wildlife were to be resolved without killing. While Sterba learned wildlife observation as a hunter, I learned wildlife observation as a non-lethal problem solver, including through 10 years of helping to protect the garden patch in rural Quebec where my first wife and mother-in-law grew most of the family food. I have never had occasion to kill, injure, or relocate a wild animal, or even to build a fence to exclude wildlife. The tricks are to encourage nuisance animals to relocate and exclude themselves, and to understand that animals, like humans, learn from experience. No single tactic works every time with every animal.
Despite this basic difference in Sterba’s outlook and mine, most of the first third of Nature Wars is in my view an excellent history of the past 500 years of ecological change in the U.S. and Canadian Northeast. “One study after another forecasts the extinction of more and more mammals, amphibians, and invertebrates as the human population soars above seven billion,” Sterba writes. “Yet what is striking is how many wild species, large and small, have come back–from near extinction in some cases. They aren’t all back, of course, but many animal and bird populations not only have been nursed back to health but have adjusted unexpectedly to life among people. This has happened nationwide, but is especially true in the eastern third of the country, where the majority of Americans live…It is very likely that more people live in closer proximity to more wild animals and birds in the eastern U.S. today than anywhere on the planet at any time in history.
“We are essentially forest dwellers,” Sterba continues. “If you draw a line around the largest forested region in the contiguous U.S.–the one that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Plains–you will have drawn a line around nearly two-thirds of America’s forests (excluding Alaska’s) and two-thirds of the U.S. population.”
Likewise, observes Sterba, while deforestation ravages much of Africa, the Amazon region, and Southeast Asia, “Forests aren’t under assault everywhere. They have been regenerating in Russia and Europe for decades.”
Summarizing a transition of attitudes occurring parallel to the recovery of forests and wildlife in the developed world, Sterba explains that “The idea that people had an obligation to be good stewards of the landscape,” whether clearing land for farming or practicing “conservation” as Sterba understands it, “was replaced by the belief that if people weren’t around throwing [the environment] out of kilter, a natural balance would prevail..A complicating extension of the idea of man the despoiler was a resurrected belief that the natural world was a benign place in which creatures lived in harmony with one another. This idea was in striking contrast to the amorality of a Darwinian nature that was indifferent and random, its creatures living in a world of predators and prey, struggling to eat, reproduce, and survive. In a benign natural world, wild animals and birds not only got along with one another but were often portrayed as tame and peaceable, with human habits and feelings.”
Sterba is correct that many people today fail to appreciate that the so-called balance of nature is more like a succession of pendulum swings than the existence of anything in steady-state harmony, but appears unaware that ethologists have increasingly established the likenesses of animal and human behavior–both in positive and negative characteristics.
Recoveries of species
Sterba proceeds to review the reintroductions and recoveries of beaver, whitetailed deer, giant nonmigratory Canada geese, wild turkeys, and black bears.
Sterba forthrightly and thoroughly identifies the role of hunting-oriented wildlife management in bringing each of these species back from scarcity to nuisance in less than 50 years, albeit with two noteworthy omissions.
Discussing the introduction of Conibear “quick-kill” traps in the 1950s by the Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals, now known as Furbearers, Sterba omits that cofounders George and Bunty Clements did not share the enthusiasm for Conibear traps expressed by another cofounder, Clara Van Steenwyck. To the contrary, George and Bunty Clements recognized that Conibear traps usually work much like the leghold traps they were meant to replace. During 22 years of acquaintance with George Clements, ending with his death in 2010, I cannot recall him ever even once defending any method of trapping animals for fur.
Also, Sterba accurately notes that the January 2009 forced landing of Flight 1549 in the Hudson River all but ended political opposition to massacring giant nonmigratory Canada geese, at least in the greater New York City area. But Sterba fails to mention that the wrong geese took the blame. The geese who were sucked into the engines of the ill-fated jet were high-flying true migratory geese, not the low-flying giants.
The concluding third of Nature Wars appears to document a collapse of capacity for critical thinking, includes much ranting against the Humane Society of the U.S., including for campaigns led by other organizations (notably Friends of Animals), and appears to recommend the reintroduction of market hunting to control perceived surpluses of urban wildlife.
Sterba dismisses out of hand the evolving technology and increasing success of wildlife contraception.
Sterba discusses roadkill at length, citing some of my 1993 data, but overlooks that roadkills of many species have declined since then, largely because roadway design and maintenance has begun to take preventing roadkills into account.
Discussing deer in the Northeast, Sterba omits that when deer are allowed to eat their way through forest understory, they move on as soon as they have consumed their food and cover, leaving the understory to recover as bird nesting habitat typically within one growing season. Trying to preserve understory by killing deer actually makes more food for surviving deer available over the winter, encourages them to twin more often, keeps more deer in the neighborhood, and can lead to tindery build-ups of old uneaten understory that helps to stoke wildfires. Paradoxically, Sterba earlier discusses some of these same effects in his criticism of hunting-oriented deer management in Michigan.
Sterba accurately explains how the soaring popularity of feeding wild birds is altering bird behavior, and decries recent epidemics of avian disease spread by the concentrations of birds around backyard feeders, but fails to note that these epidemics started, especially the 1994-2007 spread of Mycoplasma gallisepticum, immediately after the introduction of neuter/return feral cat control brought about steep declines in the feral cat population, as measured by animal control intake and roadkill studies. Indeed, Sterba contends, against the overwhelming weight of evidence, that neuter/return has had no effect, and that the U.S. feral cat population is from five to 10 times higher than any actual data-based study has indicated in more than 20 years.
Sterba claims in support of his position the unsubstantiated remarks, more than a decade ago, of a single Florida veterinarian, and the contentions of the American Bird Conservancy, whose misrepresentations of scientific studies Vox Felina blogger Peter Wolf has practically made a career of debunking, always with extensive quotations from the actual studies and copious footnotes. Wolf has already thoroughly debunked this entire section of Nature Wars, at <www.voxfelina.com/2012/11/nature-war-jim-sterba-feral-felines>.
Sterba writes early in Nature Wars how in his youth he destroyed wild grapes he viewed as “non-native intruders in a northern spruce forest,” apparently unaware that the Vikings called the region Vinland after finding wild grapes there. “In the course of researching this book, I changed my mind about those entangled vines,” Sterba concludes. “I learned how precious meadows are and how much work it takes to keep trees from invading and destroying them. Without the grapes, the forest would have grabbed that meadow in no time. Realizing this, I defected to the side of the grapes. They are growing back and spreading again, and I am cheering them on.”
Unfortunately, Sterba has yet to fully recognize and appreciate the positive ecological roles of adaptive wildlife, including feral wildlife and coyotes, whom he seems to like as little as feral cats. His understanding of conservation remains rooted in traditional wildlife management, without recognition that the great majority of people living in the rejuvenated Northeastern forest have already learned some different ways of living with wild animals, despite frequent conflict, and are learning more. As a society we are only just beginning to resolve conflicts with wildlife without harming animals, but the degree of success already achieved demonstrates that this is an attainable goal in most cases, and worthy of pursuit as both a cultural expectation and public policy.
Jim Sterba responds:
Thank you for your generous review of my new book, Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds. I much appreciate your commending it to your readers as, in part, “excellent history,” which is high praise indeed.
I hope you will allow me to clear up a few points.
You are correct in saying I grew up in rural Michigan. I began hunting in the 1950s for sport, not meat, although we ate what we shot. I do not considered myself to be “a lifelong conservationist,” as you assert. If anything, I am a lifelong journalist.
You mention “two noteworthy omissions” in my discussion of wildlife comebacks.
I quoted those who considered the Conibear body-gripping trap to be a humane alternative to the leghold trap. You are correct that I did not note that Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals’ cofounders George and Bunty Clements did not share fellow cofounder Clara Van Steenwyck’s early enthusiasm for the Conibear trap. For those against trapping, no trap is humane. I did mention, however, that the American Humane Association, the British Columbia government and Queen Elizabeth II lauded Frank Conibear for his invention. And that the European Union in 2008 refused to buy South American beaver pelts until Argentina and Chile switched from using legholds to using more “humane” Conibear 330s.
As for the Canada geese that brought down U.S. Airways 1549 in 2009, whether they were migratory or residents is disputed. The Smithsonian feather fragment isotope analysis said the birds had been to Labrador and concluded they were part of a migratory flock. Bryan Swift, New York state’s geese expert, two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service experts, and a Canadian Wildlife Service waterfowl biologist noted that resident geese go on non-nesting molt migrations on occasion, which could account for the isotope finding. They also noted that nearly half the 89 goose-airstrikes around New York City in the previous 10 years occurred in months when few if any migratory birds were around.
A couple of other points: I don’t dismiss wildlife contraception “out of hand,” as you say. I say it’s costly and impractical. You are correct in saying I overlook declines in roadkills in recent years. That’s because I know of no sound data supporting that assertion. Likewise, your assertion of “steep declines in the feral cat population” thanks to trap, neuter, return programs is, in my opinion, wishful thinking. Indeed, even the American Veterinary Medical Association says neuter/return doesn’t work to bring populations down.
I assume you were having a little fun mocking my battle with feral grapes in Maine in writing that I am “apparently unaware that the Vikings called the region Vinland after finding wild grapes there.” First, my battle began not in my youth, but when I was a youthful 40-year-old. Second, I sent samples of the grapes to the USDA’s Plant Genetic Resources Unit at Cornell University for analysis and they were pronounced––as I say on page 299 of Nature Wars––“prohibition-era table grapes, a Concord cousin.”
Merritt Clifton adds:
The late George and Bunty Clements were not always “against trapping.” They turned against trapping after more than 20 years of experimentation with purported quick-kill traps, including the Conibear, convinced them that the quest for a “humane” furbearer trap was futile.
The enthusiasm of the American Humane Association for the Conibear trap, more than 50 years ago, came parallel to AHA promotion of the use of decompression to kill dogs and cats in shelters––a method abandoned as inhumane throughout the U.S. by 1985, though now pushed by the AHA to kill chickens. The AHA meanwhile opposed surgical sterilization of dogs and cats as “vivisection,” even though it had withdrawn opposition to the release of shelter animals to laboratories for use in experiments and medical teaching and training. The AHA did not endorse surgical sterilization of dogs and cats until 1973, 50 years after the basic procedures were approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
The AHA abdication of moral authority on behalf of animals during this time led to the formation of the Animal Welfare Institute in 1952, the Humane Society of the U.S. in 1954, Friends of Animals in 1957, and the National Catholic Animal Welfare Society in 1959, which became the International Society for Animal Rights in 1977––all of which opposed Conibear trap use, then and now.
Neither could the British Columbia government nor Queen Elizabeth II be considered exemplars of humane values. Though the Queen herself has rarely hunted, her husband, Prince Philip, at least twice shot more than 10,000 captive-raised birds in week-long sprees with other royalty. After the first such incident, in 1956, Princess Grace of Monaco prevailed upon her husband, Prince Rainier, to give up captive bird-shooting. The Queen, however, apparently said nothing when Prince Philip included their son, Prince Charles, in a similar week-long bloodbath.
Non-migratory Canada geese, whose normal range is just a few dozen miles, are unlikely to have made “non-nesting migrations” from New York City to Labrador.
The cost of wildlife contraception in the research-and-development phase, as with the cost of developing any pharmaceutical, is not to be confused with the actual cost of manufacture and delivery of a perfected product. If broadcast distribution of oral contraceptives could be used, the cost of delivery would be comparable to the cost of deploying oral rabies vaccination, which has proved highly successful against rabies in foxes, raccoons, and coyotes, at cost of less than $1.00 per dose.
While developing oral contraceptives for wildlife that can be safely broadcast has not yet been accomplished, injectable chemosterilants effective in male animals are as inexpensive as calcium chloride, tests of which have recently been reported by Parsumus Foundation director of medical research programs director Elaine Lissner and others.
Concerning the decline of roadkill, even as urban and suburban wildlife populations continue to increase, the largest data base on insurance claims is kept by State Farm Inc., the largest U.S. vehicular insurer. Deer/car collisions decreased for the third consecutive year in 2011, the most recent year from which data is available, after peaking in 2008.
Concerning the decline of the feral cat population, U.S. animal shelter admissions of cats fell by more than 75% in 10 years after the formal introduction of neuter/return in 1991-1992. Roadkill studies found a decline of more than 90% in the numbers of cats found dead on city streets.
Since then, results have leveled off, but––significantly––shelter admissions of cats and roadkills of cats have not rebounded, indicating that neuter/return is at the very least suppressing a feral cat population recovery.
Finally, according to the Concord Grape Association, “The Concord grape is a robust and aromatic grape whose ancestors were wild native species found growing in the rugged New England soil. Experimenting with seeds from some of the native species, Boston-born Ephraim Wales Bull developed the Concord grape in 1849.”
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