OUR ECOSYSTEMS
nuisance species human-wildlife interactions pests

Sharing the ecosystem with wildlife - why getting outside is more important than ever

Backyard bears and flying fish - Human’s sometimes misguided approach to wildlife control

What first comes to mind when you hear the word nuisance? Maybe nuisance is the blaring of vehicle horns late at night when you’re trying to sleep, or is a person sitting behind you at the movie theatre who constantly talks to their neighbor. A lingering head cold could be considered a nuisance, as would a loose hinge on a door preventing a proper seal.

However, in today’s society, fish and wildlife are increasingly considered nuisances. The very wonders of the natural world are now often treated as pests and dealt with accordingly. It is commonplace for fish and wildlife departments to trap and relocate “problem” critters such as black bears, pine martens,* and beavers. *Canada geese are chased from manicured lawns and golf courses by domestic dogs, and gulls are driven away from drinking water reservoirs by motor boats and sirens. The acts by humans to “control” wildlife often seems more invasive and disturbing than the wildlife themselves. Unfortunately, this socio-ecological paradigm is fairly one sided, as the creatures considered nuisances do not have a voice to talk back.

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Fig. 1 Raccoon (Procyon lotor) stealing trash (Source: Trapper Joe’s Nuisance Wildlife Control)

Part of the blame is on us and our living practices. We as a people in general, often use or take more than we need (think extra food on your plate or letting the water run really hot in a shower before getting in). Practices like these can be damaging for finite resources, and they can interrupt natural balances in our ecosystems. However, it is possible to live in harmony with the land by employing more of a subsistence living lifestyle. A subsistence lifestyle means to support and maintain oneself with minimal impact to resources and other people. This is achieved by limiting waste, harvesting only what we need, and efficiently using what we have.

A lack of subsistence living contributed to the loss and decline of many native species throughout history. Take the American Bison for example. Scientists estimate that there were more than 30 million bison in North America when the first European settlers arrived. Bison were slaughtered for sport from moving trains and their carcasses left behind, and by the beginning of the 20th century, there were only several hundred left [1]! Beavers, muskrat, and mink were trapped for their fur in all reaches of their natural habitat and experienced similar plights. Because wildlife were so abundant during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, hunting and fishing practices assumed an endless bounty. This mindset set the stage for overfishing and reckless hunting and strayed far from any sort of subsistence style of living.

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Fig. 2 Black bear (Ursus americanus) enjoying backyard hammock (Source: NBC news)

Many wild species have made striking recoveries from near extinction such as the bald eagle, grizzly bear, gray wolf, black-footed ferret, and whooping crane. This turn around can be attributed to grassroots movements and pivotal legislation like the Endangered Species Act of 1973. But species recovery now forces Americans to live in close proximity to wildlife again, and there is confusion and confliction about what to do. Do we enjoy them? Adjust to them? Move them? Remove them?

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Fig. 3 Silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix) bombarding boaters on Illinois River, IL. (Source: Capitolchat.com)

This remarkable story of wildlife comeback has turned into a management mess, and much of it stems from the growing disconnect people have with nature and the outdoors. With over 4 million miles of road in the U.S. and approximately 226 million registered vehicles, it is no wonder over 1 million vertebrates are killed each day in the country (a rate of one every 11.5 seconds) with more than 90% involving deer [2].

Getting outdoors is important for all sorts of reasons. But arguably most important is that it keeps us connected to the land and species other than humans. Many people don’t interact with the natural environment, which has led to growing annoyance at - or fear of - anything that breaks our routine—like wildlife. A stroll along a stream or a bike ride in the woods can have a large impact in how we view wildlife. In fact, participation in outdoor recreation has been positively linked to increased environmental concern and behavior [3]. Seeing animal behavior in their natural habitat may actually dissuade us from stereotyping them as nuisances, and contribute to a safer environment for both humans and wildlife.

So who is really the nuisance, the bears or us? Let’s turn the perception of cuddly goldilocks bears into wild, dangerous creatures that need many miles of habitat to roam. Let’s continue to marvel at how these creatures have sustained throughout time and respect their ecosystem services. We have managed to keep many species from going extinct on the first go-around, and we have a chance to continue to improve our understanding and protection of these species today. It is up to us.

References:

[1] “5 Things you need to know about the great American bison.” PBS, Accessed 5/14/2016, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/five-things/the-great-american-bison/8950/

[2] “Roadkill statistics.” High Country News, Accessed 3/25/2016, https://www.hcn.org/issues/291/15268.

[3] Teisl, M. F., and K. O’Brien. 2003. Who cares and who acts? Outdoor recreationists exhibit different levels of environmental concern and behavior. Environment and Behavior 35:506-522.

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