By Jim Sterba
Crown. 343 pp. $26
It’s inevitable, and understandable, that today’s technology-driven culture has led us to a nostalgia for simpler times. Times when the sunrise and sunset governed the rhythm of life, when people enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with nature and its creatures. Problem is, the good old days weren’t so good, for animals anyway, as Jim Sterba explains in his new book, “Nature Wars.”
In the United States, people drove many species, such as beavers, wild turkeys and black bears, to the brink of extinction. Now those animals and others have made a remarkable comeback in our suburban and exurban sprawls. In the course of his fascinating mix of history, biology, sociology and political analysis, Sterba portrays the resulting conflicts not only between people and animals but also between hunters and activists, government officials and residents, and any number of other factions.
Lake Makefield Township, Pa., was one such battlefield. Sterba recounts an eight-year saga involving whitetail deer. The board of supervisors hired a consultant who recommended using sharpshooters to reduce the deer population, but the state game commission refused to allow the shooters to have at it until recreational bow hunters had taken aim. Animal lovers protested, and a security guard was hired to keep watch during the bow hunt. The sharpshooters came next, but pressure had caused the board of supervisors to reduce the number of shooting sites, and in the end only 123 deer were killed, far fewer than the expected 300.
A former reporter for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal who grew up in the kind of rural environment he writes about, Sterba is careful not to take sides. What he does seem to advocate is for all parties to reexamine their firmly held beliefs about nature, because living among wild, unpredictable animals is not as straightforward as a game of “Duck Hunt” or a Disney cartoon.