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In suburbia, it's a wild, wild life

A record share of man-beast conflicts now happen in urban areas.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 16, 2004



As he sipped coffee on the sunny back porch of his tidy downtown home in Northampton, Mass., Andrew Shelffo suddenly caught sight of a dark, hulking presence, standing six feet high at the shoulder.

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"At first, I just thought 'Holy cow, there's a moose in my driveway!,' " he recalls. "Then I wondered: 'Do I follow it - or go get my camera so people will believe me?' "

It turns out many people across the United States would have no trouble believing Mr. Shelffo. Over the past decade, stories of urbanites and wildlife coming into closer and more frequent contact have flourished.

In May, police shot a mountain lion in a tree of a residential community in Silicon Valley. In July, a suburban Connecticut housewife looked out her window and saw a black bear pawing through her garbage. In June, a moose galloped through the tony urban neighborhood of Wellesley, Mass., with police in hot pursuit.

"The whole thing has freaked out my parents' neighborhood," wrote one Wellesley resident in an online discussion.

Now, federal researchers can confirm a trend many have long thought existed: Human contact with a surprising variety of wildlife is reaching new highs. According to a decade of previously unreleased federal data, wild animals are moving in with the Joneses.

In 2002, the US saw a record 237,766 wildlife-human conflicts, according to data collected by the US Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services program. Of those, 38 percent occurred in urban and suburban settings. While the overall number of reported conflicts declined last year, the urban and suburban share rose to 43 percent - the highest reported percentage in at least a decade (see chart, next page).

Some say the return of wildlife to American communities has much to do with increased habitat - the regrowth of tree cover across millions of acres of the Northeast, for instance. Suburban sprawl has also pushed into previously wild areas and, at the same time, provided a safe, food-rich habitat for deer, black bears, coyotes, and other species that can adapt to human presence.

"With so much suburban sprawl, more people are encountering these critters," says Marion Larson, a biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife in Westboro, Mass. "Over the past 20 years the number of calls over suburban wildlife issues has skyrocketed."

Most encounters are not life-threatening. Damage to property is far more frequent than a scary encounter, let alone an attack. Still, wildlife threats to human health and safety have reached new highs among some species in the past two years.

Take coyotes - considered by some the "bad boys" of wildlife encroachment. They were responsible for a decade-high 9,657 health and safety cases in 2002, a 520 percent increase over 1996 - far more than other species. Such cases are considered dangerous enough that federal Wildlife Services officials either provide technical advice or conduct projects to remove animals from rural and urban settings.

Although coyotes rank only fifth among 15 species most frequently reported to Wildlife Services - well behind raccoons, skunks, Canada geese, and beaver - they're regarded as more dangerous. As coyotes pushed into the Northeast, for example, Massachusetts wildlife officials have seen a steady rise in the number of calls from worried suburbanites asking whether coyotes are a threat to children and their pets. Answer: It depends on the age of the child and the circumstances - and yes, small pets are at risk.

Oh my, lions and bears

Black bears, meanwhile, generated a record 1,702 such health-and-safety reports last year, a 59 percent rise since 1998, the agency reported. Feral hogs, which live in 23 states, including California and Texas, caused a surge of damage throughout the 1990s, peaking in 2000.

Mountain lion health-and-safety incidents also peaked in 1999 at 435, thereafter drifting downward to 207 last year. But high publicity over mountain-lion attacks and sightings in California this year could lead to a rise in numbers since myriad dubious sightings are often spawned by a single accurate report.

Such statistics hardly represent a complete national picture, Wildlife Services officials are quick to point out. They do not include cases undertaken by state wildlife agencies or by private companies. But they broadly confirm what states and localities have been experiencing, they say.

"Yes, urban people appear to have an increasing conflict with wildlife and an increasing variety of wildlife, especially over the last decade," says Robert Hudson, a USDA Wildlife Services biologist.

In New Jersey, for example, reports of bear sightings, damage to property, and collisions with cars rose 425 percent between 1995 and 2003, according to a recent state status report. Four cases in the past four years involved attacks on humans.

Some wildlife officials see a silver lining to the rising number of reports.

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