Encounters with “nuisance wildlife” have been on the upswing in recent years. Complaints from homeowners run the gamut: trampled gardens, ransacked trash, chewed electric wires, shredded drywall, torn screens, harassment of pets, and the loss of chickens and other small livestock. The list of culprits includes coyotes, black bears, raccoons, foxes, rats, and snakes, to name a few. While these critters have always been around, run-ins with unwanted wildlife are becoming more frequent.
Individuals who’ve worked in the conservation field for decades, and studied the ecology of forests, fish, and wildlife, agree that the populations of many species are on the upswing. Many have become habituated to living around people, appearing in places where they didn’t exist just a few decades ago, often putting them in conflict with people. After talking with biologists and natural resource officers who deal with wildlife management for a living, I came away with a better understanding as to why we’re seeing more frequent negative interactions with wildlife.
To set the stage, the animals perceived as nuisance wildlife all have one thing in common—they are highly adaptive. They are generalists, able to live in many different habitat types, and have a varied diet, so when one source of food disappears, they can readily move to an alternate source. Having learned that where there are people, there is food, these opportunists are showing up in our yards and farms in increasing numbers, and they have no problem taking what they see as easy pickings, whether it’s garbage, pet food, garden crops, small livestock, and in some cases, even our pets.
One reason for the increase in wildlife populations is a decrease in hunting. In the U.S., we’ve seen a cultural decline in teaching our children to hunt. Children now shoot fake guns in video games rather than getting up early to go deer hunting with Grandpa. Several decades of negative press aimed at hunters hasn’t helped either. Fewer hunters mean higher wildlife reproduction levels, which, in turn, drive up the competition for food and habitat. As food becomes hard to find, animals are forced into human-occupied areas, hence the raids on trash cans, gardens, henhouses, beehives, and bird feeders.
While it’s true that we need to respect and learn to coexist with wildlife, we also need sound, humane hunting and trapping practices to control their numbers. Not doing so leads to overpopulation, which leaves wildlife vulnerable to starvation and disease. When biologists study and track animal populations, they can adjust management goals. If a species’ population is stable, harvest goals can maintain those numbers, but if they skew too high or too low, harvest levels can be adjusted to achieve a population level in balance with available habitat and food supply.
Another reason for the increase in numbers is the encroachment of humans into formerly wild habitats. For the last 200 years, people moving into places that were historically forestland or prairie have depleted and fragmented the habitat available to animals, pushing them ever closer to heavily-populated areas, which puts them in conflict with people. Deer living in an area between major highways or around the edges of a golf course are unnatural situations. The deer are not there by choice—they are there because they have nowhere else to go.
Yet another reason we’re seeing more wildlife is the lack of natural predators. In the animal world, it’s a delicate balance of eat or be eaten. When a predator at the top of the food chain, whether bobcat, coyote, or wolf, disappears in an ecosystem due to the loss of habitat that supports them, the prey species (the animals that the predator ate) are the beneficiaries. Urban expansion into previously wild places has caused the decline of top-level predators by erasing large portions of their habitat, thereby allowing species lower on the food chain to multiply unchecked.
Wild animals living in proximity to human dwellings can lead to property damage, harassment of pets, loss of small livestock—and albeit rarely, the threat of rabies. Next to bats, raccoons are the second most common carriers of rabies. Raccoons have become somewhat reliant on human handouts or garbage for food, and are more than happy to take up residence in outbuildings, sheds, attics, and under porches or sheds, wherever there is a nearby source of food (or heat in the winter).
Black bears are lovable creatures in the wild, but on the homestead, they can wreak havoc. A bear paid a visit to our farm one night, no doubt lured in by our honey bee hives. One morning, we found two hives knocked over and damaged and the bees gone. The remaining hives were left intact. Knowing the bear would return for more honey, we enclosed the hives with electrified cattle fencing with a voltage high enough to deter an animal that could weigh up to 500 pounds. We had bears come through periodically after that (as evidenced by big limbs broken off our autumn olive and peach trees), but no more attacks on the hives.
Deer are becoming a universal problem, especially in populated areas where there is no pressure to cull their numbers. In these areas, they free range on ornamental shrubs, young orchards, blueberry bushes, and vegetable crops. With the absence of predators, the deer population multiplies, and so do the nuisance reports. The ideal solution to minimizing deer damage is to keep the population in balance with its natural habitat by culling, but there isn’t always a desire to do so.
The most persistent predators on our farm are rats and foxes. The rats eat chicken eggs and chicks, and I’ve lost more than one free-ranging hen to a cagey fox. Snakes are big predators of mice and rats, so they mostly get a pass except for rattlesnakes and copperheads, which get a free ride to another part of the farm. Our dogs help keep the foxes away, but they aren’t always outside where they can thwart a fox attack; the aptly-named “wily” fox merely waits for an opportunity to strike when the dogs aren’t around. They attack swiftly and stealthily, most times vanishing before you even know they’re there.
It’s important to remember that while an individual animal exhibiting behavior that conflicts with human expectations may be labeled as “nuisance wildlife,” we must be careful not to apply this term to an entire species. All native species contribute to balanced ecosystems. As stewards of the earth, we need to look for ways to minimize conflict so we continue to have wild animals around to enjoy. Sound conservation management, humane hunting and trapping, and taking measures to minimize negative interactions with wildlife will go a long way toward controlling nature’s creatures that are only trying to survive.
My chicken coop is now predator-proofed to keep the rats from eating the eggs and the foxes from killing the hens. I’ve won the battle this time, but I believe the rat, along with the fox and the coyote, will be around to inherit the earth.