The Ages-Old Beat Between Man and Beasts Goes On

Posted: Sep 15, 2005 12:00 AM

Time for a breather from Supreme Court vacancies and Katrina. Let's talk about what may be some of the newest arrivals in your neighborhood.

Katrina stories about pets have endeared and dismayed. But the story of man's relationship with the animal world has lately changed - principally because of (a) the reintroduction of certain species into areas where their ranks were running thin, and (b) suburbia becoming superb wildlife habitat.

Perhaps the most widely perceived animal issue is posed by the white-tailed deer. Even with regular hunting seasons, many states in the East (such as Virginia) boast about as many as estimated at the Founding. We have removed many of their natural predators and feed them with our crops and milady's ornamentals. Some of our toniest neighborhoods have hired archers and sharpshooters to keep them out of back yards. Various programs direct the venison to, among others, the homeless.

Urban parks wrestle with the deer question, too. Last year, motorists killed at least 39 whitetails in the 1,755-acre Rock Creek Park bordering pricey parcels in the nation's capitol - not counting the grazes, near-misses and unreported encounters. The National Park Service is wrestling with what to do.

Coyotes across the landscape prey on livestock. Ditto gray wolves (a.k.a. timber wolves) reintroduced in places such as Wyoming, Montana and Idaho - and causing friction between ranchers in states that allow wolf culling and those in states that do not.

Black bears dining on the five-star main-course contents of Dumpsters and suburban garbage cans, return regularly - nightly - for dessert. Studies show that such bears often are emulating their human hosts by growing heftier and more couch-potatoey.

As mountain lions move east, residents of Iowa - for instance - encounter them as never before.

Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota have issues with rising populations of feral cats - cats gone wild from the domesticated-cat gene pool. (Wisconsin authorities estimate their state's 2 million feral cats kill about 100 million songbirds annually.)

Fast-reproducing Canada geese used as decorations in high-end developments often prove destructive, threatening and divisive - as communities weigh their fate.

Residents of areas near nature preserves are hesitant to let their children play outside because of cruising cottonmouths.

These examples do not include the military, which long has struggled over what to do about animals from wild goats to red-cockaded woodpeckers in live-fire training areas. The stories are legion.

But neither in the military nor on the civilian side are animal-related issues simple - or simply resolved.

One man's varmint is another man's Bambi. Neighbors often view the bowman with razor-tipped arrows in a tree above a deeryard with a certain trepidation. Aerial culls, usually from helicopters, may require either regulatory consent or a sanctioning legislative act. It's asking a lot of a motorist to be misty-eyed about the accident-causing animal decapitated by the side of the road as the tow-truck hauls his totaled car to the bone yard.

A young mother may not be particularly romantic about the water moccasin in the downspout near the sandbox. Ask a farmer to be understanding about wolves or coyotes decimating his cattle or sheep, and he may respond by asking what you do not understand about his single-slug theory from a .243.

(And your correspondent is less indulgent today of the black bears that annually mark his remote log cabin as theirs than he was when they first happened upon it 30 years ago.)

The nation can boast of astounding successes with animals: the defeat of the lamprey eel in the Great Lakes; the nurturing of the bald eagle back from the brink; the return of certain species of finfish; and, with more work and some luck, maybe the salvation of the oyster.

And happily hiding out in an Arkansas swamp, there may be after all some ivory-billed woodpeckers - long thought extinct.

Yet we urbanize and suburbanize. And we tinker with the balance of nature (we often call tinkering in the animal world "wildlife management"). As with so much, tinkering in nature begets more tinkering. It never ends.

Regarding deer, for instance, neither annual hunting seasons nor efforts at contraception seem to reduce roadkill - or loss of human life. Nothing short of drastic seems to keep mama bear and her cubs from gamboling on the deck.

And the ages-old tension between man and Nature - the beat with the beasts - goes on.