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Wildlife comeback miracle became mess

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Nature Wars

The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds

By Jim Sterba

Crown, 343 pages, $31

This book offers a serious, and important, review of how wildlife -- particularly deer, geese and beavers -- have made a dramatic comeback in North America.

Their increases have forced many North American cities into discussions on how to control these urban wild animal populations.

Author Jim Sterba, a U.S. journalist, explains that urban sprawl has led to pathways back into cities for a variety of species, from deer to coyotes. This wildlife comeback has spread into our very backyards because of the reforestation of North America. Sterba argues that the forests in North America are now the same size as when Christopher Columbus arrived.

This new sprawl forest has provided a habitat that includes shelter, food (for geese, all the lovely golf courses) and no predators. Today in North America, he writes, more people are killed annually in deer-car collisions than in all the plane, train and bus crashes combined.

Coyotes are moving into the cities to cull the fawns, goslings and feral cats that reside in the new forest sprawl. Here in Winnipeg coyotes have been sighted on both the Red and Assiniboine rivers, geese are in every retention pond and deer are in residence from Charleswood to North Kildonan.

Sterba puts forward some fascinating arguments about how some species have recovered so quickly. For example, people spent $3.5 billion per year on the pastime of feeding birds. This is the closest some of us ever come to wildlife.

Flocks of urban turkeys are now spreading across North America and are being seen in places they have never inhabited before. "People in the sprawl helped make them feel welcome," Sterba writes.

"They put up bird feeders in hopes of attracting feathered friends the size of chickadees, only to be greeted one day by a 20-pound bird with a five-foot wingspan. Later the big bird might return with two dozen of his buddies and lots of attitude."

Sterba has done his research, and it shows. He devotes an entire chapter to our very own Canada goose, a.k.a. the "lawn carp."

The explosion of Canada geese across North America is best illustrated by the case of Minneapolis and St. Paul. In 1968, the Twin Cities had approximately 480 Canada geese living in the seven-county region. By 1982 the flock had risen to more than 12,000.

In 1995, the Twin Cities captured and removed 6,858 geese and allowed hunters to kill another 15,000 birds. This left the population at roughly 24,000 birds.

However, the complaints started when a new urban advocacy group, the "species partisans," formed to organize to protect the geese. They claimed that a goose massacre was being launched with taxpayers' money. As a result, goose-roundup permits, issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, became far more difficult to obtain.

Sterba's chapter on "feral felines" is very informative. Cat overpopulation is a concern in cities across North America. Both pet and feral-cat numbers could be anywhere between 146 million and 186 million. This book is sobering reading for those dealing with urban wild animal issues and feral cats.

If you have ever wondered why there are so many geese and deer in Winnipeg, Sterba offers a valid explanation in an accessible style, backed up with solid research.

Some of his proposed solutions to lower human-wildlife conflicts may offend some readers. However, this book will contribute to future discussions about how best to confront the fact that "we turned a wildlife comeback miracle into a mess."

Bill McDonald is CEO of the Winnipeg Humane Society

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 J8

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