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More than a century after the birth of the wildlife conservation movement, Blue Ridge residents are seeing more and more critters in their backyards.
Until recently, Lisa Powley had only seen one black bear in her hometown of Free Union, Virginia, a tiny community of fewer than 200 people near Charlottesville. That changed last summer, when neighbors began swapping stories. One witnessed a bear knocking over the family grill on the patio, then looked up to see a second one on the hillside. The homeowner tried to scare it off by making a loud noise, but the creature chased him back into the house, leaving paw prints on the door. One night another neighbor opened her window and came nose-to-nose with a bear.
Powley, 54, was nervous but intrigued. So she and her uncle drove to the community hall where a few adolescent bears had been spotted. At dusk, one, then another, emerged from the woods, ambled around the building, then jumped on the dumpster and began yanking out trash.
“I was just amazed,” Powley recalls. “I’d never been that close to a bear in my life. It was really exciting but at the same time, I was a little frightened because there are elderly people in the neighborhood—my parents being some of them—and then we’ve got a lot of young children.”
Later, when Powley spotted a cub in the road, she knew it was time to call in the experts. At a town meeting, 80 people showed up to hear a spokesperson from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries offer advice on how not to attract bears to their homes.
“It made me feel a lot better, that they don’t want me,” Powley says. “They just want what we have: our garbage.”
More of Us, More of Them
More and more Blue Ridge residents are seeing an influx of wild animals in populated subdivisions and urban parks. Bears boldly raid trashcans, turkeys strut through busy neighborhoods, and deer show up in surprising numbers. But why?
Some experts say it’s because humans are moving into spaces where wildlife have lived—without us—for decades. Other conservationists point to habitat destruction that forces the animals to search for new homes, while some insist that man-made parks and other green spaces with abundant vegetation are luring them in, or that reforestation of former farmlands is providing the perfect place for them to thrive.
Fueling the news—and the drama—of sightings is social media, which instantaneously allows us to share photos and OMG moments.
For Chuck Waters, game management region supervisor at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division, “It all boils down to the fact that there are a lot more of us than there used to be—a lot more houses, a lot more suburbia, more vacation homes and rental cabins in the mountains. That fox, I promise you, is not coming around your house because it enjoys your company. It’s looking for food, water or shelter. Don’t make it more complicated than it is.”
Coincidentally, the landscapes we often create to beautify our homes—ponds, gardens, bird sanctuaries—are also magnets for medium-size, foraging mammals that don’t need large territories to roam. As we continue to urbanize more land, says John Griffin, director of urban wildlife for The Humane Society of the United States, “the critters are just following us where we go. Animals that may have been originally displaced do seem to find habitat, however marginal it might seem to us, in and around our cities, our towns and our neighborhoods.”
Adds Griffin, who lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland, “I know people who’ve lived in those communities for 30 years and say, ‘I’ve never seen a raccoon.’ Well, you haven’t been looking. They’re there, and typically in higher numbers than they are in more rural or natural settings because of the food and the denning sites that are available. … It’s common, and it’s going to become increasingly common.”
Birth of the Conservation Movement
Before colonization, deer, beavers and other indigenous animals were plentiful in the eastern forests. When the settlers arrived, they built roads and railroads, cleared woodlands for farming and shipbuilding, and hunted and trapped the animals for the fur trade. (It is reported that in 1748 alone, South Carolinians shipped 100,000 deer pelts to England.) Without laws to regulate “market hunting,” the colonists all but wiped out the natural inhabitants.
Around 1900, a shift in thinking began to take place. President Theodore Roosevelt, a cowboy hunter who claimed a spiritual kinship with nature, vowed to protect as much land as possible, and by 1910 every state had formed some kind of commission to conserve wild game and fish. During the Roosevelt era, millions of acres of public parks, forests and wildlife refuges were set aside for public use.
The 1930s brought another wave of conservation efforts, with forester Aldo Leopold, the “father of game management,” writing some of the first textbooks on wildlife biology, and sportsmen demanding the restoration of deer and other game species for recreational hunting. In 1937, Congress passed the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, which levied an excise tax on all hunting weapons and ammunition, with proceeds going to fund wildlife restoration projects, research and education.
Thirty years later, public outcry over widespread use of pesticides led to a series of landmark laws to make the environment safer.
Gradually, many wild animals rebounded. Consider, for example, the comeback of wild turkeys, which Tom Hughes, assistant vice president for conservation programs at the National Wild Turkey Federation, calls “the greatest conservation success story in history.”
The organization estimates that before the Europeans arrived, approximately 10 million turkeys lived in mature forests and along grassy edges where they could roost in trees, rear their young, and find plenty of grasshoppers and acorns. But unregulated hunting and widespread land-clearing “nearly extirpated the wild turkey,” says Hughes.
Using money generated from hunting licenses and the Pittman-Robertson Act, wildlife biologists relocated the big birds from places with healthy populations to areas where they were absent or scarce.
Today, Hughes says, “We have somewhere around 7 million turkeys, restored almost to their former abundance. And they actually are in states beyond their original range.”