Keeping urban wildlife in check

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: January 18 2014 | 12:01 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:17 am in

By Steve Dummermuth and Rich Patterson

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Most Americans consider wildlife denizens of leafy suburbs, farms, distant forests and wilderness areas. True, but wild animals are increasingly common in areas where even biologists once said they couldn’t live.

Many Iowans recently were thrilled to learn that a Minnesota moose wandered south and lingered near Cedar Rapids’ city limits. Although it apparently has departed, bald eagles, Canada geese, house finches, river otters and even an occasional deer have moved into downtown Cedar Rapids and other Iowa cities in recent years. Raccoons, possums, squirrels, cottontails, sparrows, starlings and pigeons are longtime downtown dwellers.

GREAT CHANGES

Many wildlife species are much more adaptable than biologists imagined. The national change has been so great that Time Magazine recently devoted its cover story to urban wildlife, and a National Geographic article detailed the expansion of cougar populations eastward from the Rocky Mountains. Bears now are common within a few miles of New York City, and deer are common in cities across the country.

Habitat changes, human attitudes and the inherent adaptability of many species account for the change.

Iowa farmland once was a patchwork of small fields separated by brushy fence lines and interspersed with woodlots. This “edge” habitat is perfect for pheasants, deer, cottontails and other species. Gradually, farms consolidated, equipment got bigger and fence lines and woodlots were removed. Today’s farms increasingly are wildlife deserts.

As habitat evaporated in the country, it did the reverse in and near town. Cedar Rapids is an example. The city has wooded river and stream corridors, patches of trees and yards with shrubs, grasses and trees. Family farms on the urban fringe mostly have been bought by people who work in town. They allowed former pastures and crop land to revert to brush, woods and native grasslands. Deer and wild turkeys moved right in.

DIFFERENT ATTITUDES

Human attitudes about wildlife also have undergone a shift. A century ago, farmers usually kept a firearm handy, and any edible wild animal that revealed itself soon became dinner. Predators universally were shot as pests.

By the early 20th century, much of the country was nearly devoid of desirable wildlife. Laws protecting animals were enacted and attitudes began changing.

Where wildlife once was seen as either food or vermin, they increasingly were viewed as desirable neighbors.

Deer, geese and turkeys thrive in today’s cities. Years ago, a few deer wandered into Iowa from Wisconsin and Missouri. Numbers slowly grew until the 1980s when the population exploded.

Turkeys and Canada geese were imported from other states and released. All three species found excellent habitat in town. As they multiplied, conflicts with people quickly followed. Deer love dining on valuable garden plants and have a habit of colliding with cars. Geese leave messy droppings on sidewalks and lawns.

Pigeons, not native to North America, found tall buildings excellent substitutes for the rocky cliffs where they nest. They now are so numerous that their droppings are difficult to avoid downtown. There is no doubt that pigeons are overpopulated and create health and aesthetic problems in downtown Cedar Rapids. Their numbers should be reduced.

HOW TO MANAGE?

The rise in urban wildlife is making changes in the relatively new profession of wildlife management. A century ago, little was known about the habitat needs of wild animals or how their populations responded to changing conditions. Money from hunting licenses and taxes on firearms was adapted and used for research, hiring game wardens to enforce laws and improve habitat.

Wildlife management has focused on rural areas, and wildlife managers tended to be people comfortable interacting with farmers and ranchers. Managers use hunting as a tool to reduce or stabilize populations of game animals. Farmers generally understood the need to trim populations and allowed hunting on their land.

It works well in the country but is flawed in town where hunting is either unsafe or politically unacceptable. Reducing overabundant herds of urban deer, geese and even pigeons is challenging. Bow hunting helped reduce deer herds in Cedar Rapids but there remain pockets of high deer density where even this is unworkable.

For years, ongoing research has attempted to develop contraceptives to trim deer numbers, but developing safe chemicals and applying them to enough deer to reduce the population is challenging and expensive.

MORE THAN HUNTING

Hunters and many animal rights advocates have been at loggerheads for years. Hunters understandably are reluctant to see their dollars used to manage wildlife in urban areas where hunting usually is banned and animal rights groups resist legal hunting in town where it is feasible. The debate frequently is heated, encouraging political leaders to avoid dealing with wildlife problems or attempting noncontroversial but generally ineffective ways of solving wildlife problems.

Hunting is an outstanding and time-proven way to manage wildlife in rural areas and is valid in towns where it can be done safely. However, reliable funding needs to be found to research ways to fund politically accepted methods to control populations of animals that cause problems in urban areas.

Steve Dummermuth, a Cedar Rapids businessman, is an Indian Creek Nature Center board member and has a biology degree. Comments: steve.dummermuth@igdindustries.com. Rich Patterson is development director of the Indian Creek Nature Center, where he was executive director for 35 years. Comments: rpatterson@indiancreeknaturecenter.org

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