America's Pest Problem: It's Time to Cull the Herd

After nearly wiping out many wildlife species 50 years ago, Americans are once again living close--sometimes uncomfortably so--to all kinds of feral creatures. Why wildlife in the U.S. needs stronger management

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Photograph by Daniel J Cox / Getty Images

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Other nonlethal strategies tend to be either ineffective or expensive or both. What's known as aversion training works on the idea that animals can be scared away from human habitats by loud noises, nipping dogs, strobe lights or blasts of rubber buckshot. But an experiment in New Jersey found that the lure of the dumpster quickly overwhelms a bear's memory of such traumas. Contraception is another popular idea, but when it has been tried on deer, the most effective birth control technique--medicated darts--works only on captive populations. Without an enclosure, unmedicated deer mingle easily with the medicated ones, and the result is more fawns.

Meanwhile, the damage done by booming wildlife populations is substantial. Some 200 Americans die each year in more than 1.2 million vehicle collisions with wandering deer--wrecks that cause damage resulting in more than $4 billion in repairs, according to the Insurance Information Institute. One recent Tuesday morning in western Michigan, a motorcyclist named Theobald "Buzz" Metzger, 55, struck a deer in the suburbs of Kalamazoo. The force of the collision sent him flying from his bike. Moments later, 78-year-old motorist Edmund Janke happened on the scene. Startled by the sight of a body in the road, he swerved, lost control of his car and died after he was thrown from the vehicle. One deer, two people dead.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that some 5 million feral pigs do $1.5 billion worth of damage each year. The hogs are digging through garbage in the suburbs of Atlanta, rooting for acorns in the city parks of Houston and plowing up golf courses from the Oklahoma Panhandle to the heart of Indiana. Worried about the threat of disease spreading from wild pigs to their domesticated cousins, the USDA is preparing a nationwide effort to encourage hunting. The bad news: feral pigs are notoriously difficult to shoot.


An overabundance of wildlife is a wonderful problem to have. I'm dazzled by the variety of beasts and fowl my kids have met in their own backyard. Though they live in an inner-ring suburb of Kansas City, Mo., they've seen foxes trotting across the street; bunnies, opossums and raccoons in the yard; and hawks diving on prey. A migrating swan spent a couple of days in the neighborhood creek last winter, and a mature barred owl spent an hour the other day just outside our kitchen window, perched on a tree branch and rotating its head to give us a lordly look when we tapped quietly on the glass.

Compared with my children, I grew up in a veritable wilderness: a Denver subdivision where suburbia quickly gave way to farmland and open range. And yet that open landscape was zoologically dead. A pair of muskrats had their den in a nearby irrigation canal, and an occasional jackrabbit tore through the tall grass. But mostly it was quiet, because humanity had killed just about everything off.

Today wild-bird strikes bedevil American airports. Lyme disease, spread by deer-borne ticks, haunts hikers and gardeners and kids in backyards. Rabies passes easily among raccoons, beavers, foxes and skunks, while wild hogs carry swine brucellosis. Humans caused the near collapse of American wildlife, and now that the critters are back, it is our job to help maintain the delicate balance of the ecosystems we have designed and built.

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