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Originally published Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 5:05 AM

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‘Nature Wars’: Wildlife versus human, suburban edition

Jim Sterba’s “Nature Wars” chronicles the dilemmas created by the resurgence of wildlife populations in much of the eastern United States.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“Nature Wars: The Incredible True Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds”

by Jim Sterba

Crown, 343 pp., $26

Just as an almost bipolar opposition seems built into our nation’s very DNA — profligacy versus austerity, adventurism versus isolationism, libertarianism versus prohibition, bigheartedness versus miserliness — so this opposition plays itself out on our physical terrain, particularly the eastern seaboard, as former longtime Wall Street Journal and New York Times reporter Jim Sterba capably illustrates.

In this case, it’s the decimation of vast ecosystems — including millions of acres of forest and a range of animal species — in our nation’s westward expansion through the 19th century, followed by a massive reforestation, either by default as pioneers abandoned farms and headed even farther west, or by enlightened legislation crafted to preserve or replenish forest stocks.

Occurring at the same time as this reforestation was a steady surge of population in the 20th century, especially in suburbia, that “sprawl” between city and farm. By 1970, for the first time suburbanites outnumbered both city dwellers and rural population, according to Sterba.

“It is very likely that more people live in closer proximity to more wild animals and birds in the eastern United States today than anywhere on the planet at any time in history,” Sterba writes.

In that proximity can be seen the contradictory desires of allowing nature to take its course, while needing to protect humans from wildlife experienced at such close quarters.

Sterba details the challenges of human interactions with, specifically, bears, beavers, Canada geese, feral cats and wild turkeys, but his discussion of the white-tailed deer seems emblematic of the issue.

From a historic low of 300,000 members nationwide in 1890, stocks of white-tailed deer grew to as many as 25 to 40 million by the 1990s, the result of deliberate conservation efforts, laws against discharging of firearms in populated areas, and, in the unarmed and disinterested suburbanite, the removal of the deer’s primary predator: humans.

Add the planting of tasty suburban vegetation, and the result is a population explosion, bringing more than $1 billion in damage to forests and home gardens annually, 3,000 to 4,000 deer-vehicle collisions per day, and the spreading of Lyme disease from deer to humans.

Sterba lays out the template for a discussion that he’s witnessed over the years and that he says occurs in thousands of communities nationwide:

The scenario begins with a community meeting called to discuss the “deer issue,” which devolves into a shouting match over whether there are too many deer. Sensing an impasse, the community hires an outside expert. The expert reports — after the next election — that there are indeed too many deer, and that they should be “removed.” It’s determined that the herd should be culled by sharpshooters, an abhorrent idea to nonhunters, who organize an effective resistance movement. Years pass.

“Different casts, same characters, same anger, same arguments, same questions, same certainty, same ignorance, same grief,” Sterba writes.

It’s comical, yet this is the essence of the issue: how to address the realities of such human-animal interaction in a way that is both humane and effective.

Sterba is more inclined to leave the issue out there than to deliver bromides, but he suggests a responsible stewardship that would combine, for instance, the culling of such edible animals as deer with the distribution of their meat to farmers markets.

Informed by Sterba’s thoughtful text, a discussion certainly to be continued.

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