Our Next Mammal

 

(This 971st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 1, 2009.)

 

What next?

 

Suburban and even urban homeowners are finding nature encroaching more and more on what they formerly considered their sole domain. Expecting only the possibility of mice, rabbits and squirrels, they have also been confronted with rats and shrews, chipmunks, raccoons, deer, skunks, woodchucks, opossums, foxes and coyotes, even porcupines in the Southern Tier. And for those who also venture out at night, bats and flying squirrels.

 

And now black bears. First, bear sightings increased in East Aurora and Bennington, but bears were also seen in Clarence and even Hartland and Lockport. Then at least two were hit by cars, one along the Niagara section of the Thruway close to downtown Buffalo. Finally, much to the dismay of animal lovers, a bear was shot in suburban Amherst.

 

I attended one of the excellent presentations by Olean-based wildlife biologist Tim Spierto about bears in western New York. He informed us that there are between 500 and 1000 bears in the Southern Tier of central and western New York, still well under the numbers in the Catskills and Adirondacks. And young bears are like teenagers, he said. They set out to find new territories, the bears often following creeks and the openings created by power and gas lines.

 

So get ready. You may soon find when you venture out to fill your bird feeder or to take out your garbage that you are feeding a bear as well.

 

That may be okay in rural areas, but I support the action of the Amherst police in killing the problem bear there. Capturing and relocating the bear, what many of my friends argue for, is problematic. There are legal problems associated with relocation: the bear will almost certainly be equally disturbing in its new environment as well, and they often return to where they were captured anyway. A relocated animal will also often find itself in a territory already established by another bear. Then it will usually be killed or at least kept away from food sources until it starves.

 

I love wildlife but I love children still more: there is simply no place for a powerful 200 to 500-pound omnivore in a heavily populated area.

 

That brings us back to the rhetorical question I posed at the beginning of this column: what mammal will be next?

 

My candidate: the moose.

 

Moose2.GR.JPG

A Moose in the Minnesota Boundary Waters

Photo taken on a 2002 Canoe Trip

 

Extirpated from New York by the late 19th century, in 1974 a single moose found its way back to the state, probably from the mountains of western Massachusetts where almost 1000 now reside. Since then the population in the Adirondacks has increased at a rate of about 15% each year to about 500 today.

 

Hunters have responded to this increase by asking for a legal hunting season, but state law must be changed to allow a season to be set. Such a law will almost certainly be delayed until the moose increase to a point at which many highway deaths occur (17 people have already died from such crashes in Vermont) or the damage they do to vegetation is recognized.

 

I saw what violence moose can wreak on an ecosystem when I hiked across Isle Royale in Lake Superior a few years ago. The number of wolves that provided a natural control on the moose was down and the moose population was accordingly high. Everywhere they had stripped trees of their bark and foliage to a height of eight or ten feet. They even reached over the high fence to defoliate mountain ashes near the edge of an exclosure designed to show what the foliage would be like without their depredations.

 

What could happen here? The New York moose numbers will continue to increase exponentially with calves driven out of territories by bulls. They may then spread beyond the Adirondacks. Until that happens it will be difficult to institute reasonable hunting seasons and we might even have a wandering moose problem along with our problems with deer and now bears.

 

The moose is our largest mammal. Many bulls weigh well over 1000 pounds. They are not normally aggressive toward humans, but their attacks far outnumber those of bears.

 

I will be just as happy to see moose only in the Adirondack and Algonquin Parks.-- Gerry Rising