Book Report: The Beast in the Garden, Part One

Part two is here.

Some time ago I put up a couple of posts here and at LITGM that highlighted what I propose is a huge comeback by wildlife – specifically near and in cities. Most all commenters agreed that they see many animals on a daily basis in or near cities that would hardly ever be seen twenty years ago.

I find this topic absolutely fascinating. One commenter suggested that I pick up a copy of “The Beast in the Garden” by David Baron. So I did. Most of the time here at ChicagoBoyz book reviews are done. Well, I honestly don’t know enough about wildlife and biology to fairly review this book, so I have decided to do more of a book report, and interject a few things that relate to me locally here in Southern Wisconsin. The book is divided into three sections – The Peacable Kingdom, Borrowed Time, and Plague. This part of my book report deals with The Peacable Kingdom.

The book begins with the description of the death of a person outside of Boulder, Colorado. This person was killed by a mountain lion. Previously these animals were supposed to be timid night creatures that were scared by the presence of humans. Now it seems they, as the nature that I have been seeing in my neighborhood, have adapted to the presence of humans – and are now considering them a food source. This is of significance to me because there have been cougar sightings here in Southern Wisconsin for the first time in over one hundred years – they are guessing that the cat (or cats) walked here from a pack in South Dakota. It has since been verified from DNA testing that we do indeed have cougars here. A cougar is just another name for a puma, mountain lion or panther and I will be using these different names for the same large cat in this post.

In the prologue, Baron makes an interesting statement that sort of sums up what may be happening in our cities (from p. 11):

These countervailing forces – humans moving out and wildlife moving in (due to conservation efforts – Dan), lands being developed and neighboring lands being restored – present both an unprecedented paradox and a surprising phenomenon: the return of the American frontier, which historian Frederick Jackson Turner defined as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization,” more than a century after it was officially declared closed.

Also from page 11, Baron defines what is an Ecotone – “the zone of transition between habitats”, and declares that America is fast becoming one huge Ecotone. Also from p. 11:

These new transition zones, however, create dynamics that cannot be completely predicted or controlled. In ecotones, species mix that otherwise remain separate. The dynamics of predator and prey change. Such changes, termed “edge effects” can propagate and alter the functioning of ecosystems some distance from the boundary.

Interesting statements to be sure, and ones that seem to be verified by the commenters on my posts of a month or two ago.

Early on in the book Baron describes Boulder, CO in the late eighties as what the residents would describe as their own Eden on Earth. He also notes that this Eden was somewhat like the original Eden in that there was no carnivory. The populations of mountain lions, bears and wolves had been purposely wiped out many years back – and the populations of other animals such as deer were on the rise. p. 18:

Boulder boasted its own urban herd (of mule deer – Dan) – estimated to number more than a thousand – that wandered backyards and city streets.

Yuck, that had to be a mess. But I digress.

The remainder of the chapter goes on to describe how a bear in a national park got conditioned to humans by the constant pictures taken of it – but one day a person got too close and was mauled. I propose that it is this conditioning of the wild animals that should worry us most.

The author goes into great detail describing the virtual wipeout of the mountain lion population in the area in the early part of the 20th century as the area was being settled, and that eventually how this wipeout caused the deer herds to actually decrease. From p. 33, per the National Park Service:

By 1924, deer had increased until more than seventeen hundred were counted in one meadow in one evening. Winter came, deer died, and those that lived ate every leaf and twig till [sic] the whole country looked as though a swarm of locusts had swept through it, leaving the range (except for the taller shrubs and trees) torn, gray, stripped, and dying.

The author goes on to say:

With little left to eat, the deer population collapsed, and the vegetation was left so denuded that scientists estimated it could take fifty years for the forest to recover fully. The lesson seemed clear: cougars had helped keep the Kaibab ecosystem healthy by holding prey numbers in check; paradoxically, deer benefited from the presence of an animal that ate them.

I have for a very long time wished that our local DNR here in Wisconsin would extend the hunting season as our deer population is out of control – and with no predators (or very few such as wolves in the northern part of the state) they seem to have nothing to check their multiplication. Yesterday on the way to work (I get to work about an hour before dawn) I saw deer on four separate instances grazing, some of them near the largest highway in Madison, the Beltline. Seeing deer carcasses on the Beltline is no big deal anymore, and deer sightings in my subdivision are becoming common as well. I fear that a fate such as described above will come to our deer population when the herd gets to the point of what I call “eating itself” as in the Kaibab ecosystem.

But the city of Boulder eventually wanted the cougars back. And they got them. Over time the residents considered cougars victims instead of villains. And also over time the City of Boulder began purchasing large swaths of land around the city, and let the land lie – p. 47:

The Front Range and adjacent plains became Boulder’s chessboard. The city strategically purchased parcels of land to scuttle developers’ plans, block highways, and hem in nearby towns.

But the land that was left alone began eventually to inherit a little too much nature. Thousands of geese descended on Viele Lake, attracted to a bubbler installed to supply year round water. The residents also began feeding the geese with predictable results – “truckloads of olive turds the size and shape of a puffed cheese snack” (p. 49). The more serious problem was the explosion of the mule deer population. The deer were tolerated and even encouraged by the locals, many of whom put salt blocks near their homes and fed them. From p. 50:

“Instead of scattering at the first sight of people as their wild brethren would, Boulder’s deer paced the streets and glanced nonchalantly at passing pedestrians. The animals were tame.“(italics mine – Dan)

This reminded me of a visit I took to Colorado a few years back. We were driving in a remote area outside of Colorado Springs. We entered a small town called Guffey and in the middle of the day dozens of mule deer were seen grazing all over the place – in the town. I asked my friend who I was driving with if we had entered a deer park – and I was being honest. He said that he didn’t think so. I just shrugged my shoulders and said “what the f*ck is this?” I was so stunned to see deer and humans living side by side that I just didn’t know what to do or say.

The story then turns to the activities of Michael Sanders, an employee of the Boulder County Parks department. He collects and grades cougar sightings in and around the Boulder area. At this point he seemed satisfied that the cougars are acting as they should – being most active at times and places that humans aren’t. Things seem to have changed around the autumn of 1988.

The aforementioned mule deer herd that lived in and around Boulder was living a “more cosmopolitan lifestyle”. The normal activity of wild mule deer is to feed and search for food at dawn and dusk, and to bed down during the day to hide from the heat and bugs, conserve energy and to hide from predators. The mule deer in Boulder, due to the friendly atmosphere cultivated for them by the locals, began to feed during the day. “This diurnal adjustment would produce ripple effects.” The German biologist Eberhard Curio was quoted on p. 66:

Predators are known to synchronize their predatory activity with the main activity of their prey.

I think we can, by now, tell where this story is going. The citizens of Boulder had not listened to the State of Colorado wildlife management teams. Instead of properly managing the wildlife population in and around Boulder, the citizens wanted and got a hands off approach. The exploding deer population and their changed habits brought with them predators who were now walking the subdivisions of Boulder – and who had changed their habits. Nature had decided what was best for her. All the lions were doing was playing the game by the new rules. And lions must kill to eat – they are obligate carnivores. In other words they eat only meat, as described by the “Cougar Menu” I posted a few days ago.

The results in certain neighborhoods of Boulder are predictable. Family pets began to disappear, and eventually mangled, shredded, broken deer carcasses started to appear on the lawns of the townfolk. Most worrisome to Michael Sanders, the cougars eventually started to show no concern about seeing humans. And Boulder seemed to like the lions around.

Continue to part two.

10 thoughts on “Book Report: The Beast in the Garden, Part One”

  1. In my Northern New Jersey town we have wild turkey. And not the crappy, scrawny ones I shot in California. These are big, fat healthy looking specimens. I wonder if my neighbors would mind if I…

    I wonder how many thousands of tons of venison is destroyed by cars each year? How many people could that meat feed?

    The law of unintended consequences cannot be repealed, even by the good people of Boulder!

  2. I grew up near Valley Forge National Park. In my youth (70s/80s) deer were not a problem. Starting in the 90s deer became, and have stayed, a big problem. People die every year in deer related accidents – including the occasional bicyclist!. According to the 2007 township minutes there were 1,100 car accidents in my township (just one township near the park) including 157 deer related accidents.

    My fuzzy recollection is that deer culls started to be opposed in the late 80s and early 90s, about the same time the population boomed. Hiring bow hunters on your private property was allowed but it was unpopular with the anti-culling crowd so I don’t know if it is still permitted.

  3. I should clarify that where I grew up is a suburb on the main line outside Philadelphia and not out in the country.

    A blame Walt Disney (seriously). Without Bambi more people would see deer in their true form – rats on stilts.

  4. Jack – I like deer – really. Not much beats good venison backstraps. As I mentioned we are totally overrun here in Southern Wisco. I don’t see the DNR extending the hunting season until farmers crops start to get destroyed and a politician begins to lose a voting bloc. We have so many car deer accidents here that people stopped counting long ago. I harvested one myself with my Honda Odyssey a few years back.

  5. btw, a cougar was shot and killed in the northern part of Chicago yesterday (the 14th at the time I’m writing this).

  6. I saw that cougar in Chicago (Roscoe Village). I will be VERY interested in the DNA test to see if it was a wild cougar or one raised in captivity – if that thing ends up being wild, we are in for some very interesting times.

  7. Valley Forge, Main Line Philadelphia – deer are a HUGE problem. Huge.

    I do know that if the state police consider a deer in good enough shape after being hit, they contact hunters in the area who take the carcass and do use the meat – I’ve eaten lots of Volvo-killed venison myself.

    Where we live (West Chester) it’s getting worse every year. There are about 30 deer around our development. My neighbor legally had a bow hunter come last year, with her immediate neighbors (including us of course) approval, but neighbors down the hill from us made a big stink so he only got one day (and one doe). There are lots of morons who like to feed the little fawns here.

    Meanwhile — of my family of four, two of us (including my two-year-old son) have had Lyme, and I’m sure the rest of us will soon enough. Not to mention the constant car accidents. I am sitting here right now staring at my fearless deer neighbors, wishing for a rifle . . .

  8. BlackOrchid – I feel sorry for you – feeding the deer is the absolute worst thing that your neighbors could do for the deer herd – and sanitation in general. And if you should happen to have a cougar or two wander in your area of the country…well…lets just say you will need to keep your dogs, cats and kids indoors.

  9. Hey BlackOrchid, I grew up in Wayne (well, Strafford before the post office closed).

    I now live in Boston and spend time in New Hampshire (where you can shoot guns without getting fingerprinted). Just a couple hundred miles North of PA the temperatures are slightly lower and this is enough to drastically reduce the deer population. I assume this is because of winter die-offs and not because the vegetation is much different (it isn’t).

    Many of my friends who are PA/NJ expats remark on the change. You can drive on backroads at night at speed and without fear.

    Dan From Madison, I didn’t mean to imply that deer taste like rats. Or maybe they do if rats are really tasty. I’ll never know.

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