decade ago, who would have thought that New Jersey would host a
black bear hunt--the first in 33 years? Or that Virginia, whose
population of bald eagles was once down to 32 breeding pairs, would
have 329 known active bald eagle nests? Who would have expected
Metropolitan Home magazine to be advising its readers about
ornamental grasses to keep away white-tailed deer, now found in the
millions around the country?
incidents illustrate a transformed America. This nation, often
condemned for being crowded, paved over, and studded with
nature-strangling shopping malls, is proving to be a haven for wild
is difficult to ignore this upsurge of wildlife, because stories
about bears raiding trashcans and mountain lions sighted in
subdivisions frequently turn up in the press or on television.
Featured in these stories are animals as large as moose, as well as
once-threatened birds such as eagles and falcons and smaller
animals like wolverines and coyotes.
interpretation of these events is that people are moving closer to
wilderness and invading the territory of wild animals. But this is
only a small part of the story. As this essay will show, wild
animals increasingly find suburban life in the United States to be
stories, while fascinating, are not all upbeat. Americans are
grappling with new problems--the growing hazard of automobile
collisions with deer, debates over the role of hunting, the
disappearance of fragile wild plants gobbled up by hungry
ruminants, and even occasional human deaths caused by these
the same time, the proliferation of wildlife should assure
Americans that the claim that urban sprawl is wiping out wildlife
is simply poppycock. Human settlement in the early 21st century may
be sprawling and suburban--about half the people in this country
live in suburbs--but it is more compatible with wildlife than most
people think. There may be reasons to decry urban sprawl or the
suburbanization of America, but the loss of wildlife is not one of
Why So Many Wild Animals?
phenomena are fueling this increase in wild animals. One is natural
reforestation, especially in the eastern United States. This is
largely a result of the steady decline in farming, including cotton
farming, a decline that allows forests to retake territory they
lost centuries ago. The other is suburbanization, the expansion of
low-density development outside cities, which provides a variety of
landscapes and vegetation that attract animals. Both trends
undermine the claim that wild open spaces are being strangled and
that habitat for wild animals is shrinking.
trend toward regrowth of forest has been well-documented. The
percent of forested land in New Hampshire increased from 50 percent
in the 1880s to 86 percent 100 years later. Forested land in
Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island increased from 35
percent to 59 percent over that same period. "The same story has
been repeated in other places in the East, the South, and the Lake
States," writes forestry expert Roger Sedjo.
Environmentalist Bill McKibben exulted in
this "unintentional and mostly unnoticed renewal of the rural and
mountainous East" in a 1995 article in the Atlantic Monthly.
Calling the change "the great environmental story of the United
States, and in some ways of the whole world," he added, "Here,
where `suburb' and `megalopolis' were added to the world's
vocabulary, an explosion of green is under way." Along with the reforestation come the
animals; McKibben cites a moose "ten miles from Boston," as well as
an eastern United States full of black bears, deer, alligators, and
perhaps even mountain lions.
re-greening of the eastern United States explains why some large
wild animals are thriving, but much of the wildlife Americans are
seeing today is a direct result of the suburbs. Clearly, suburban
habitat is not sterile.
Habitat for Wildlife
people move onto what once was rural land, they modify the
landscape. Yes, they build more streets, more parking lots, and
more buildings. Wetlands may be drained, hayfields may disappear,
trees may be cut down, and pets may proliferate. At the same time,
however, the new residents will create habitat for wildlife. They
will create ponds, establish gardens, plant trees, and set up bird
nesting-boxes. Ornamental nurseries and truck farms may replace
cropland, and parks may replace hedgerows.
new ecology is different, but it is often friendly to animals,
especially those that University of Florida biologist Larry Harris
calls "meso-mammals," or mammals of medium size. They do not need broad territory for
roaming to find food, as moose and grizzly bears do. They can find
places in the suburbs to feed, nest, and thrive, especially where
example of the positive impact of growth is the rebound of the
endangered Key deer, a small white-tailed deer found only in
Florida and named for the Florida Keys. According to Audubon
magazine, the Key deer is experiencing a "remarkable recovery." The news report
continues: "Paradoxically, part of the reason for the deer's
comeback may lie in the increasing development of the area."
Paraphrasing the remarks of a university researcher, the reporter
says that human development "tends to open up overgrown forested
areas and provide vegetation at deer level--the same factors
fueling deer population booms in suburbs all over the country."
Indeed, white-tailed deer of normal size
are the most prominent species proliferating in the suburbs. In The
New York Times, reporter Andrew C. Revkin has commented that
"suburbanization created a browser's paradise: a vast patchwork of
well-watered, fertilizer-fattened plantings to feed on and
vest-pocket forests to hide in, with hunters banished to more
increase in the number of deer in the United States is so great
that many people, especially wildlife professionals, are trying to
figure out what to do about them. In 1997, the Wildlife Society, a
professional association of wildlife biologists, devoted a special
600-page issue of its Bulletin to "deer overabundance." The lead
article noted, "We hear more each year about the high costs of crop
and tree-seedling damage, deer-vehicle collisions, and nuisance
deer in suburban locales." Insurance companies are worried about
the increase in damage from automobile collisions with deer and
similar-sized animals. And there are fears that the increase in
deer in populated areas means that the deer tick could be causing
the increased number of reported cases of Lyme disease.
the proliferation of deer poses problems, as do geese, whose flocks
can foul ponds and lawns and are notorious nuisances on golf
courses, and beaver, which can cut down groves of trees. Yet the
proliferation of deer is also a wildlife success story. At least
that is the view of Robert J. Warren, editor of the Bulletin, who
calls the resurgence of deer "one of the premier examples of
successful wildlife management." Today's deer population in the United
States may be as high as 25 million, says Richard Nelson, writing
in Sports Afield.
People have mixed feelings about deer. In
the Wildlife Society Bulletin, Dale R. McCullough and his
colleagues reported on a survey of households in El Cerrito and
Kensington, two communities near Berkeley, California. Twenty-eight
percent of those who responded reported severe damage to vegetation
by the deer, and 25 percent reported moderate damage. Forty-two
percent liked having the deer around, while 35 percent disliked
them and 24 percent were indifferent. The authors summarized the
findings by saying: "As expected, some residents loved deer,
whereas others considered them `hoofed rats.'"
James Dunn, a geologist who has studied
wildlife in New York State, believes that suburban habitat fosters
deer more than forests do. Dunn cites statistics on the harvest of
buck deer reported by the New York State government. Since 1970 the
deer population has multiplied 7.1 times in suburban areas (an
increase of 610 percent), but only 3.4 times (an increase of 240
percent) in the state overall.
explains that the forests have been allowed to regrow without
logging or burning, so they lack the "edge" that allows sunlight in
and encourages vegetation suitable for deer. In his view, that
explains why counties with big cities (and therefore with suburbs)
have seen a greater increase in deer populations than have the
isolated, forested rural counties. Supporting this point, Andrew
Revkin quotes a wildlife biologist at the National Zoo in
Washington, D.C. "Deer are an edge species," he says, "and the
world is one big edge now."
are not the only wild animals that turn up on lawns and doorsteps,
however. James Dunn lists species in the Albany, New York, suburbs
in addition to deer: birds such as robins, woodpeckers, chickadees,
grouse, finches, hawks, crows, and nuthatches, as well as
squirrels, chipmunks, opossums, raccoons, foxes, and rabbits. Deer attract coyotes
too. According to a 1999 article in Audubon, biologists estimate
that the coyote population (observed in all states except Hawaii)
is about double what it was in 1850.
Garreau, author of Edge City, includes black bears, red-tailed
hawks, peregrine falcons, and beaver on his list of animals that
find suburban niches. Garreau still considers these distant "edge
city" towns a "far less diverse ecology than what was there
before." However, he writes, "if you measure it by the standard of
city, it is a far more diverse ecology than anything humans have
built in centuries, if not millennia."
one reason or another, some environmental activists tend to dismiss
the resurgence of deer and other wildlife. In an article
criticizing suburban sprawl, Carl Pope, executive director of the
Sierra Club, says that the suburbs are "very good for the most
adaptable and common creatures--raccoons, deer, sparrows,
starlings, and sea gulls" but "devastating for wildlife that is
more dependent upon privacy, seclusion, and protection from such
predators as dogs and cats."
the suburbs attract animals larger than meso-mammals, and the
suburban habitat may be richer than what they replace. In many
regions, suburban growth comes at the expense of agricultural land
that was cultivated for decades, even centuries. Cropland doesn't
necessarily provide abundant habitat. Environmental essayist Donald
Worster, for example, has little favorable to say about land
cultivated for crops or used for livestock grazing. In Worster's
view, there was a time when agriculture was diversified, with small
patches of different crops and a variety of animals affecting the
landscape. Not now. "[T]he trend over the past two hundred years or
so," he writes, "has been toward the establishment of monocultures
on every continent." In contrast, suburbs are not
large animals can be found at the edges of metropolitan areas.
Early in 2004, a mountain lion attacked a woman riding a bicycle in
the Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in the foothills above populous
Orange County, and the same animal may have killed a man who was
found dead nearby. According to the Los Angeles Times, if the man's
death is confirmed as caused by the mountain lion, it would be the
first death by a mountain lion in Orange County. The Times added,
however, that "[m]ountain lions are no strangers in Orange County's
canyons and wilderness parks." Indeed, in 1994, mountain lions killed
two women in state parks near San Diego and Sacramento. Deer may be
attracting the cats, suggests Paul Beier, a professor at the
University of California at Berkeley.
article in a Montana newspaper, also citing Paul Beier's research,
reported that mountain lion encounters are increasing around the
country. The article noted that according to "conventional wisdom,"
the encounters occur because more people are moving into the lions'
habitat. But, the author says, the reverse is also true. Lions "are
spending more time in what has long been considered human habitat,
our cities and towns and subdivisions."
in the East, mountain lions may be returning. Bill McKibben
reported in 1995 that the Eastern Puma Research Network had been
told of 1,800 puma (a mountain lion) sightings during the previous
10 years. The National Wildlife Federation reports a resurgence of
cougars (another type of mountain lion) in California, where they
are endangering bighorn sheep in the Sierra Nevadas.
Although black bears are smaller than the
relatively rare and dangerous grizzlies, they can be sizable, and
they appear to be moving into urban areas too. New York Times
reporter Robert Hanley noted that a 175-pound black bear was
discovered in "the heart of the business district" of West Haven,
Connecticut. "The world of wildlife is far different from what it
was a generation ago," Hanley noted, "as more housing eats into
once distant wilderness. All sorts of species no longer stay
secluded in deep woods." He specifically cited "moose on the
developing outer fringes of suburbia; coyotes, fox, deer and the
ubiquitous Canada geese in older suburban towns; bears and turkeys
have been infiltrating subdivisions in Jefferson County, Colorado.
According to the Rocky Mountain News, state wildlife officials
estimate that 2,500 elk live in the area between Denver and the
Continental Divide. "The increase has occurred entirely in
residential subdivisions such as Evergreen Meadows, not in the
area's vast expanses of national forests, according to state
wildlife biologist Janet George."
few environmental groups acknowledge the richness, or potential
richness, of the suburban environment. A project of the National
Wildlife Federation is called "Backyard Wildlife Habitat." It
certifies families' backyards that have been planned to attract
wildlife. Through its Web site, the National Wildlife Federation
advises amateur naturalists on how to develop wildlife-friendly
yards. Habitat builders are led through the basics of improving
their backyards. In "Learn How to Build a Simple Pond," Doug
Inkley, a senior scientist for the Federation, describes how to
design a pond to include fish and frogs.
owner of one Colorado backyard habitat certified by the National
Wildlife Federation welcomes mallard and wood ducks; herons,
kingfishers, and other large birds; and hawks, snakes, foxes, and
skunks to her property. The owner has chickadees in a nest box and
finches in a thistle feeder. "Before" and "after" photos on the
National Wildlife Federation's Web site are impressive.
similar vein, Keeping Track is a Vermont organization that teaches
volunteers how to monitor signs of wildlife. Susan Morse, founder
and program director, says, "We offer the average citizen something
physical they can do for wildlife in the community to stop the
damage they see happening." Founded in 1994, the organization has
approximately 600 members and 55 groups, primarily in New England.
The goal is to identify wildlife so that local planning commissions
will make wiser decisions. "We urgently need to make a planned
attempt to create buffer-lands around wilderness areas and protect
the rural working landscapes," Morse told the Amicus Journal.
Keeping Track group in New Hampshire documented the presence of
bobcats at one site. Their records led to a decision to relocate a
proposed electric utility transfer station and to defeat plans for
a snowmobile trail. Bobcats? In suburbia? No, but close to it. The
group was the Piscataquog Watershed Association based in Weare, New
Hampshire, a town in the growing southern part of the state.
Americans are seeing is an apparent compatibility--albeit perhaps
an uneasy one--of animals and humans in growing metropolitan areas.
Suburbs have grown in large measure because people have the wealth
and the mobility to move into less-dense environments. Economic
studies show that as income rises, people show greater interest in
protecting their environment. Although they may shop in malls and
drive on highways, they like open space, gardens, and groves of
trees--landscapes also likely to attract and nurture wild
entrepreneurs, responding to this interest in nature, are making
deliberate efforts to maintain the natural environment when they
develop home sites. In the West, entrepreneurs are integrating
homes with habitat for wildlife, including large animals such as
elk and bears. Lee Poole and Joe Vujovich, for example, have been
developing Moonlight Basin, a mountainside community that combines
homes with easy access to ski lifts and wildlife habitat near Big
Sky, Montana. William Ogden is doing something similar on a smaller
scale in the nearby Eagle Rock Reserve. Other "eco-developments"
include Farmview in Pennsylvania and Wildcat Ranch near Aspen,
Colorado. There are even "eco-sensitive" golf courses. An
international certification program evaluates golf courses on the
basis of their preservation of natural habitat, their conservation
of water, and other environmental features.
Others combine nature and residences by
restoring native plants. Ron Bowen, president of Prairie
Restorations, Inc., is a pioneer in this endeavor. Based in
Minnesota, Bowen raises plants like wild rye and thimbleweed,
vegetation native to the prairies and savannahs of the Midwest.
Until recently, residents routinely seeded their lawns with
imported vegetation such as Kentucky blue grass; but some years
ago, Bowen dreamed of designing landscapes that resemble the
traditional fields of southern Minnesota. Today, his restorations
can be found on the lawns of corporate headquarters and private
efforts would be severely restricted in a dense urban
setting--partly because they depend on periodic, controlled fires.
Only low-density suburbs can bring the experience of prairie life
to individuals on a day-to-day basis.
addition to such entrepreneurial efforts, citizens are taking
political action in an attempt to set aside more open
space--another sign that increasingly affluent Americans want to
maintain natural habitat where they live. Voters in many states
have approved ballot measures that provide funds for additional
open space set-asides. In his 1991 book, Joel Garreau remarked that
the New Jersey state plan (a growth-management strategy) urged
company headquarters to become "refuges for wildlife" and new
residential developments to be "clustered and adjoin protected
natural streams and wooded areas."
Sharing Our Turf
fact that wildlife finds a home in suburban settings does not mean
that all wildlife will do so. The greening of the suburbs is no
substitute for big stretches of land--both public and private--that
allow large mammals such as grizzly bears, elk, antelope, and
caribou to roam. The point of this essay is that the suburbs offer
an environment that is appealing to many wild animal species.
the United States continues to prosper, the 21st century is likely
to be an environmental century. Affluent people will seek to
maintain or, in some cases, restore an environment that is
attractive to wildlife, and more parks will likely be nestled
within suburban developments, along with gardens, arboreta, and
environmentally compatible golf courses. As wildlife proliferates,
Americans will learn to live harmoniously with more birds and
meso-mammals. New organizations and entrepreneurs will help
integrate nature into the human landscape. There is no reason to be
pessimistic about the ability of wildlife to survive and thrive in
Jane S. Shaw is a Senior Associate of PERC, the
Property and Environment Research Center, in Bozeman, Montana. She
is coeditor with Ronald D. Utt of A Guide to Smart Growth:
Shattering Myths and Providing Solutions (Heritage Foundation and
PERC). This essay is adapted from Chapter 3 in that