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

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.

"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.

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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.

"As our [efforts] to better protect habitat and reduce contaminants in the environment have succeeded, we have certainly seen a rebound of wildlife populations across a range of species," says Bradley Campbell of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection. "In most cases, the return of wildlife even to suburban areas is a positive development."

But there's also a need for better education of the public, he adds. Many suburbanites in the state feed the bears, or at least don't put away barbecue grills and trash - boosting the number of bears bumbling into the burbs, he says.

More habitat for animals - and people living in that animal habitat - is the reason for growing human-wildlife encounters, says Gordon Batcheller, a wildlife biologist with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation in Albany. He points out that a wide swath of newly forested land covering the Northeast - best observed from an airliner window at 30,000 feet - has resulted in more wild animals appearing in the burbs there.

"There's been a landscape-scale change over the past 100 years," Dr. Batcheller says. "Land that was intensively farmed was abandoned and the brush, shrubs, and forest came back. So now we have a vast forested landscape in which these animals can live. The animals are present, so are people, and that leads to interactions. And they're not always happy."

Deer, for instance, were hunted until they were almost gone. But restoration efforts combined with reforestation mean about 1 million deer now roam in New York, Mr. Batcheller estimates, resulting in thousands of car-deer collisions annually.

Yet federal data run contrary to some state and local findings. One big surprise: Reported deer damage to property is falling. It reached the second lowest level in a decade last year with 902 cases - down 73 percent from its 1997 peak. Health and safety cases involving deer also sank to a 10-year low. More people ask federal officials for technical assistance with bats and squirrels than with deer.

But state officials beg to differ.

"That's not what's happening here," says Ms. Larson of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. She says deer-car collisions are often not well reported. Commissioner Campbell in New Jersey also cites that state's challenge with deer populations.

Giving up on deer?

Federal officials say this particular statistic could be misleading because deer populations are still growing. So a lesser number of cases could simply mean that more people have just given up calling for help, says the Wildlife Service's Mr. Hudson.

Rebounding deer populations have had a major unintended effect, at least in the western US. Deer in suburbia are luring their predators as well, scientists say.

In Boulder, Colo., mountain lions have even entered the city to prey upon deer.

"We had mountain lions coming six blocks into the city limits at night with some regularity," says Jim Halfpenny, one of the nation's foremost authorities on mountain lions, who studied their interaction with human populations in Boulder in the 1990s. "We had deer kills within the city limits.... Mountain lions are quite willing to live near people and they habituate very quickly, although most of the time people have no idea they're around."

People as prey

When lions come into a community hunting deer, they may consider people to be legitimate prey, too. A mountain lion killed a runner near Boulder in 1991. This past January, a lion killed a mountain biker in the foothills of Orange County, Calif., and attacked another. To the north near Kernville, Calif., another lion mauled a hiker in June.

Nationally, mountain lion health-and-safety cases peaked at 435 in 1999 and have dropped by half since then. But that hasn't cooled the debate in California.

Some argue that hunting lions is needed to keep them wary of people. Dr. Halfpenny, however, says only a reduction in the number of deer inside city limits will really help. Also, homeowners need to understand better that they are living in the wild.

"People should learn how to lion-proof their yards," he says. "If you live in predator country, you have to predator-proof your yard. If you jog, don't jog alone - and consider carrying bear spray."

He recommends clearing underbrush in a yard so nothing can sneak up. Take the barbecue and pet food inside. Lights in the yard are a good idea. And don't let young children play in the yard by themselves, he says, particularly at twilight.

Back in Massachusetts, Mr. Shelffo will long recall his brush with a moose. He decided not to get his camera after all. Instead, he approached within a few feet of the moose, who then lurched away and around the far side of his garage, plodding into the brush and trees behind his house. "After a few moments he just blended in," he says.

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