The quandry with urban wildlife

Cranbrook Councillor Bob Whetham talks about why we struggle with urban wildlife in this column.

Coun. Bob Whetham

In some places it’s bears, in others it’s beavers or geese. Here in Cranbrook, it’s an overabundance of deer.

In many parts of North America and overseas, species that until recent times were the focus of conservation efforts have adapted to life in the suburbs and flourished.

While wildlife has become habituated to people, their presence has also become a source of increasing confusion and conflict. Part of the issue is changing public attitudes. Species that for centuries were hunted as a source of food or clothing are now regarded by many as outdoor pets. For their part, these creatures are simply taking advantage of rich, urban habitats furnished with lush lawns, flowers and shrubbery. Lacking predators and with an abundance of food, their numbers have increased to the point where they have become a nuisance and at times a menace.

Developing acceptable programs for wildlife management to address growing public frustration and concern is an emotional and divisive challenge that has fallen to municipal councils to resolve.

So how did we get here? Local circumstances vary but Jim Sterba, the author of “Nature Wars”, describes two general trends that stand out. One involves the post war shift away from farms and rural areas to cities where the majority of people now earn their livelihoods indoors. As the population has become more urbanized, it has also become increasingly disconnected from the natural world. Associated with these changes, there has been a decrease in hunting and, despite what we are taught about Darwin, a widely held belief that if it were not for human interference, wildlife would live in a natural state of harmony with each other.

The other major factor is urban sprawl. Without protection and suitable habitat to support them, game animals would not choose to live amidst their traditional predator, homo sapiens. Our stewardship of large, landscaped suburban lots is not about raising crops but about providing “a stage for living” where the focus is on preserving the appearance of natural surroundings. The tree cover and edge conditions so carefully tended by people are also favoured by deer. Experience in Michigan has found upwards of 65 animals per square mile in the suburbs as compared to a mere 15 animals per square mile in the wild. Education can help to reduce deer-human conflicts but does not address their unchecked proliferation. Removing them still means they have to be taken somewhere, and sterilizing them is not practical nor are the drugs allowed in Canada.

So what to do? Wildlife control by lethal means is controversial and it took the crash of US Airways flight 1549 into the Hudson River after geese were sucked into both engines for opposition to a long sought reduction program to be overcome. A crisis had to occur before steps could be taken to address the problem.

Deer do not present the same level of hazard but statistics compiled over the past several years show that in Cranbrook, nearly twice as many have been killed as a result of collisions with vehicles than in the two culls carried out to date. No details on injuries or costs for damages are available but it is safe to say that for those who were involved, the experience was traumatic. Nothing in nature remains static and in the absence of a program to control the deer population, vehicle collisions and incidents of aggression involving humans and dogs can be expected to increase along with the prospect of attracting natural predators including coyotes and cougars.

Even in animal-loving Britain, there are growing demands to cull the deer population for reasons of public safety as well as the need to reduce damage to woodlands and crops. One recent editorial quotes research calling for reductions of 50 to 60 per cent.

Cranbrook’s experience with deer is a story that has already played out many times elsewhere. The issues are complex but one conclusion that can’t be avoided is the need to accept our responsibilities to manage and provide stewardship of the altered environment we helped to create.

Bob Whetham is a Cranbrook city councillor.

The opinions expressed represent those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the City of Cranbrook.