2005: The Greening of Hunter Orange

Peter Applebome/New York Times

The Greening of Hunter Orange 
Published: December 4, 2005 New York Times 
Peter Applebome 

NOW that the courts have given the go-ahead for New Jersey's second bear hunt in 35 years, let the real battle begin: animal-rights activists jumping up and down for the cameras, hunters on parade lugging around 600-pound bear carcasses, the usual overheated morality play (Critters good! Hunters bad!) in denim and camo. 
But in many suburban areas, every week is a critterfest. Black bears! White-tailed deer! Canada geese! Wild turkeys! Coyotes! Raccoons! Beavers! Feral monk parakeets! Are coyotes good because they'll eat your deer or bad because they'll eat your Shih Tzu? Wisteria Lane or Wild Kingdom? Who can tell the difference? 

Let me state my bona fides for weighing in here. I've never hunted and never plan to. I wouldn't know a Glock from a Remington. I always thought my cousin Paul was both nuts and morally deficient because he trekked off into the woods every fall with his hunting buddies. 

So, biases out in the open, I have one word for my suburban Rambo neighbors who will take to the frigid woods in search of bear Monday morning: Thanks. 

Not thanks because there's anything pleasing about seeing a beautiful, shy animal shot. And not thanks because more hunting is the answer to all of the endless critter dustups of suburbia. But thanks because even if you're a member of the hunting-averse majority in these parts - especially if you're a member of the hunting-averse majority - any rational view of the escalating war between man and nature in the suburbs would have to include an honest consideration of killing animals. 

We're in the midst of a small, and mostly welcome, miracle of biodiversity that no one planned for and no one has figured out. There are more deer than there were in colonial America; they have reached unheard of, unsupportable densities. Once almost extinct, black bears are the new deer, who were the new raccoons. We've created an all-you-can eat, predator-free smorgasbord for wildlife and have pretty much left it to individual communities to figure out what they want to do about it. 

So though there might be something appropriately humbling about comfortable suburbanites being driven slightly bonkers by the critters that feast on their azaleas and knock over their garbage cans, when you're one of the afflicted, the spectacle loses its teaching value pretty quickly. 

Thoughtful people know that we cannot simply kill our way out of this mess. Michael Klemens, a senior conservationist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said it was important to see most of the nuisance creatures of suburban life as subsidized species living off the environment we've created for them. Change that environment over time, a long period of time, and the problem goes with it. But how realistic is it to think we'll alter our kingdom of sprawl to better deter or discomfit Canada geese and deer? 

WHAT we do know is that deer have done incalculable damage to the forests of the Northeast, stunting future growth, killing plants and trees, destroying food and habitat for other creatures. If that kind of damage was done by a corporation, it would be viewed as an environmental crime of epic scale, which is why many conservationists and researchers, like experts at Cornell University, increasingly say one of the most worrisome conservation issues is the declining number of hunters. 

"More and more, they're doing what the state needs them to do," said William J. McShea, a wildlife biologist who works with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Smithsonian Institution. "Either you pay someone to do it or these guys pay you to do it." 

Hunting is not the only solution. There needs to be concerted open-space and habitat preservation. Regional approaches are needed so that communities don't just shoo animals away to the town next door. People need to develop strategies to deter and deal with bear and deer, because they're not going away. And people need to know that it took decades to create the problems, and it will take decades to deal with them. But the truth is, we're in the early stages of a strange biological game no one knows how to play. At least the hunters seem to know their role. 

"Some people say this is dealing with wildlife, it's not rocket science," said Paul D. Curtis, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University. "But it's actually much more complex than rocket science. In physics, if you treat a subject the same way, you'll always get X amount of energy from a certain amount of fuel. With wildlife, there's so much uncertainty, it's always unpredictable." 

And for those of us allegedly in the non-nuisance category, this update on Wednesday's column about Edith Kling's dispute with her condominium board, which complained that she wasn't properly cleaning up after her guide dog: There was a board meeting Thursday. After some residents presented a petition supporting Mrs. Kling, an argument broke out. First, there was shouting, then a brawl in which punches were thrown, the police were brought in and an assault complaint was filed. Glad we're the intelligent species.