Critter Crunch

As wilderness and predators lose ground, deer, turkeys and skunks are becoming a normal feature of our suburban landscapes

Wild critters pay no respect to the invisible line that marks the boundary between Washington and Idaho. Such animals live, multiply and die wherever food and habitat are friendly. Householders in both states, and around the nation, are finding more and more critters sharing their urban and suburban lives. Many animals are choosing different predators — traffic, traps and dogs — over the hardscrabble life of the wild.

Our lawns and gardens are helping deer numbers triple every five years. Moderate winters and global warming help the fertile does produce twins. We are living in the midst of a deer population explosion.

This conundrum has emerged in fairly recent times. Lewis and Clark and the rest of their Corps of Discovery almost starved to death while wandering through the wilderness of what is now the Dakotas and Montana. According to their journals, the Lewis and Clark expedition had plenty of guns and powder, but the wild game they needed to feast on was scarce. On December 1, 1805, a scouting party "had seen the track of one deer only and a few small grey squirrels."

Fifty years ago, spotting a deer in our neighborhood was an eye-popping event. Now it's a rare day when I see "one deer only." They cover the landscape.

Estimates of deer damage across the country must be part science and part by guess and by gosh. The Wireless Deer Fence Co., hardly an objective source, estimates there are 20 million deer in the country causing $3.8 billion in insurance claims. As I understand it, $1 billion of that sum is to cover damage to cars and trucks. It is clear that the automobile is the deer population's No. 1 predator.

Not to be outdone by deer, wild turkeys are finding their way around suburban neighborhoods. A strange, prehistoric-looking bird, it travels in herds of 20 or so on a meandering path only wild turkeys can follow. Folks have been known to shoot and cook them. Probably only once, since wild turkey meat has the reputation of being too much chew, too little flavor.

And then there's the moose, once described as a creature so laughable it must have been designed by a committee. Recently the Coeur d'Alene Press ran a picture of a moose strolling down the ramp at the Coeur d'Alene Resort, so at ease it might climb on board the Mishanock for a tour of the lake.

Checking in with our local Fish and Game staff, I learned that squirrels and skunks are the most annoying invaders and best candidates for relocation. Traps at Fish and Game are available to rent for $20 a cage. A neighbor once spent a summer trapping a den of baby skunks that tangled with his pet dogs too many times, with the unfortunate result one would expect from a skunk. He patiently made 14 trips into the forest before he got rid of the unwelcome litter.

Not everyone borrows the traps for relocation, and Fish and Game ask no questions.

Clearly there are many birds and animals thriving on civilization as a safe source of food and a refuge from predators. Their increasing numbers frequently trigger a love-hate relationship with those of us who are their hosts.

Some think that we should defer to the critters because we are building houses on habitat belonging to the world of wild creatures. Others find that the creatures' increasing numbers (wasps, too) trigger a fight-not-flight response.

As with children, the young animals touch the heart. They are just so darn cute. A spotted fawn, looking new and delicate, still gives us pause. Once the fawn is a teenager with coarse hair and a taste for flowers, not so much. Baby skunks are fun to watch frolic — their stripes are so white they glow in the dark — yet an adult skunk is hard to love. At the end of each summer, the year's crop of young turkeys has a certain charm. But they'll never acquire the Hollywood appeal Walt Disney gave to Bambi.

Controlling undesirable wild visitors is best done by limiting food — some communities even have laws against feeding deer. Pet food left out overnight provides a smorgasbord for wild creatures.

People's affection for deer — the Bambi factor — is a real roadblock to passing ordinances that address deer overpopulation. Evidently chemical birth control is wildly expensive and not very effective. Guns or bows and arrows are the recommended weapons of control. Ugh.

Everyone has a tale or two about encounters with wild creatures, be they big as a bear or small as a spider. Any one of you could have filled this column with your stories.

"Live and let live" works most of the time, with both people and wild animals. But when it comes to deer — where, oh where, is the big bad wolf? ♦

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