The Peaceable Kingdom

 Vol. 10, No. 16

April 18-24, 2002

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Can Humans and Wildlife Live Side by Side in 21st Century Chesapeake Country?
by Martha Blume

Do you have bats in your belfry? Squirrels at your seed? Deer on your drive? Geese on your grass? Or, for our friends in the western end of the state, bears in your bins?

The birds, bats, bees and bears were here before us. Then our colonial ancestors took arms and eliminated from Chesapeake Country bear, wolves, deer, Canada geese, elk, beavers and many ducks and wading birds. But in the last decades of the 20th century, many wildlife species learned to coexist with humans. Today’s question is what to do with wildlife that gets in our way.

When wildlife comes browsing in the lawn, running onto the porch, knocking on the door or pounding through it, 21st century citizens are as likely as their 17th, 18th or 19th century ancestors to defend their territory. If they don’t load their guns, they unload their troubles on one or another of the federal, state and county agencies that make it their business to intervene in conflicts between humans and other species.

Traditionally, those authorities have favored hunters, who swelled their numbers and supported their programs. That they do so should be no surprise. It’s not been many decades since hunting and fishing, crabbing and oystering supplied the tables of Chesapeake Country.

In 21st century conflicts, sportsmen continue to argue for expanded hunting seasons. Wildlife managers bring to the conflict their own arsenal: poison baits as well as sterilization and, when waterfowl are deemed nuisances, egg-addling.

In recent years, animal protectionists have advanced a third strategy: peaceful co-existence. Their increasing influence has inspired a lively intraspecies conflict, as humans have had to resolve their own differences as well as interspecies conflicts.

One of those wars was fought on behalf of the mute swan, a non-native species considered by many environmentalists an invasive nuisance. But animal rights activists were horrified by the lethal response of wildlife officials and took their outrage to court, where they won protection for the birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

After a decade of battles pitting the rights of humans against those of animals, Maryland has tried to forge a policy to guide practice, convening last year a Task Force on Non-Lethal Wildlife Management. Ours was the first effort of this kind in the nation.

The 15-member team of local, state and federal wildlife officials, animal protectionists, scholars and citizens was charged by the House of Delegates and the Department of Natural Resources to examine causes of conflicts between humans and animals, study current management strategies and recommend non-lethal methods.

But first, the diverse group of hunters, trappers, legislators, animal advocates and planners — the labels not necessarily mutually exclusive — had to resolve their own conflicts.

“The meetings were quite contentious,” says Pat McElroy, of Gaithersburg, who represented the Humane Society of the United States on the Task Force. The majority of the members were hunters and trappers, and that miffed the animal protectionists. But in the end, McElroy — herself an animal rightist — allowed that “the final recommendations were reasonable.”

Those recommendations came out in a thick report in January. Its big conclusion is surprisingly simple: We humans — homeowners, developers, planners, and wildlife managers — need to know more. Learning about the behavior and biology of our animal neighbors is the first step. The second is having the strategies and resources at hand to prevent conflict or to resolve it without deadly force.

You’re about to read how the Maryland Task Force’s recommendations — tolerance, prevention, adaptation, study and planning — play out in five situations where humans and animals come into conflict.

The Birds
For years, Bob Kovich’s home in Shady Side looked like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. A flock of vultures — 50 to 100 of them — had moved in.

“They ate our windshield wipers, the rubber around the windows on our cars, my wife’s motorcycle seat, the hot tub covers. We had vulture poop on the car. We’re bird lovers,” Kovich explains. “At first we thought they were cute.” But over the course of the birds’ stay, he estimates the vultures did $300 in damage to his property.

People either love or hate black vultures. In the air, they are masters of wind currents, soaring with a characteristic V-shape to their wings. But for all of the big birds’ garbage-collecting habits — they eat carrion, and the name vulture means “cleanser” in Greek — their own standards of personal hygiene leave much to be desired. They have a nasty habit of regurgitating when frightened or angry. And, up close and personal, they wouldn’t win any beauty contests with a wrinkly gray head absent of feathers and a hunched black back. Like pigeons and geese, they can foul up a yard or neighborhood with unimaginable amounts of guano, leading to public health concerns and general disgust. Still, it’s all a matter of perspective. And, apparently, of how well you know them.

When Kovich’s vultures wore out their welcome in Shady Side, they moved across the West River and have now taken up residence in Galesville, where some neighbors are learning to love them.

“Because I saw them so often, I lost my disgust for them and got curious,” says Cel Petro, of Galesville, who is director of the Carter Library at Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “So I began to read more about them.”

Petro discovered that black vultures are quiet — the only noise they make is a soft grunting sound — and communal birds. “In the mornings, we see them perched in trees together, drying out their wings, with their shoulders hunched. Instead of looking threatening and aggressive, they are actually quite comical,” says Petro. What’s more, she thinks vultures make good neighbors because of their road clean-up program. “We wouldn’t want them to leave,” says she.

Neighbor Carole Bolsey says that in our littered world, vultures are practically the only “natural cleaner-uppers” around. She likes their style, too. “They routinely spend their warm afternoons in lovely gyres over our fields,” she says. Indeed, she’s grown close enough to vultures to give them names. “We’ve named them all Betty and Bubba,” she says, for “they’re always in pairs.”

What’s different on the two sides of the West River? Steven Kanstoroom, chair of the Non-Lethal Task Force, sums it up with one word: tolerance. “Different people have different levels of tolerance,” he says. “What’s a nuisance to one person can be a wonderful thing to someone else.”

What’s more, we all have different tolerance zones. The bird that’s beautiful on yonder tree becomes an intolerable nuisance when perched above your patio. The stately heron is picturesque wading the marsh; fishing your goldfish pond, the bird’s a predator.

Scott Healey, U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist and a member of the Task Force, says that even our beautiful state bird, the great blue heron, is a nuisance to some. Clever birds that they are, herons have learned to harvest the bounty of ornamental ponds where affluent human neighbors keep koi or large goldfish.

“We recommend pond owners exclude the bird from being able to get into the pond with netting or fencing. They can also use rocks in the pond for the fish to hide in,” he says.

At Bittersweet Hill Nursery in Davidsonville, Hildreth Morton raises goldfish in ponds. “The great big blue herons fly in just before daybreak and eat all the fish, then fly back in the evening and eat some more,” she says. “They eat goldfish and frogs and whatever comes by their big beaks. You can’t do anything about it. It’s against the law to look at ’em cross-eyed.”

Does the encroachment on her livelihood bother Morton?

“I think they’re beautiful. You learn to put up with everything in life. You live in the country, you put up with it,” says Morton, who covers the ponds where fish are raised for sale. But it’s impractical and unattractive to cover all of them. As the water lilies grow, their leaves make it harder for the herons to see the fish, and the herons “go somewhere else where they don’t have to work so hard.”

But what’s a person to do when tolerance runs thin?

Call Nuisance Central
Kovich called the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which provided him with plenty of information on how to annoy vultures away to a new roost. Much as he might have fantasized of following the lead of Elmer Fudd and “kill the wascal,” his messy neighbors were off limits. Because vultures are migratory, federal law prohibits them from being killed or even harmed.

Kovich turned to scare tactics: banging garbage can lids at dusk and turning up his radio — until the neighbors complained — to disrupt the birds’ sleeping patterns. Eventually the birds did leave.

Kovich’s was one of some 10,000 calls for help fielded each year by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kevin Sullivan, state director of the USDA Wildlife Services, operates the “nuisance wildlife” toll-free number, co-sponsored by Natural Resources: 877/463-6497 •

Most often, callers are satisfied with information and reassurance. ‘That red fox, or that groundhog, in your yard is no risk to you,’ he’ll say. ‘You were fortunate to see a wild animal.’

Indeed, he says, by reporting wildlife sightings, many people “have a sense that they’re helping out, which they are.”

Sometimes, however, callers are not satisfied. The beast in their castle must go.

Sullivan tries first to change the behavior of animals by changing the behavior of humans. ‘Are you feeding animals, like dogs or cats, in your backyard?’ he asks. ‘Can you put up exclusion devices? Can you adapt landscaping so that trees aren’t hanging over your house? Do you have woodpiles in your backyard that attract wildlife?’

If prevention and exclusion strategies do not work, management moves to the next level: harassment, in the form of balloons, flags, noise and dogs. Then the stakes get higher. In the case of migratory bird populations, if hazing and harassment don’t solve the problem, the federal government can issue a permit to take — as in kill — a percentage of the nuisance animals.

This is a last resort. Prevention — by keeping your property clean and knowing animals well enough to predict their habits — will solve a wide variety of problems, Sullivan says, even if the problem is as big as a bear. The 40-some bear calls he gets every year, he refers to Department of Natural Resources’ western branch.

Which Brings Us to Garrett County
The first time I tried to reach Harry Spiker, Bear Project leader for the Garrett County Department of Natural Resources, he was out in the field “working a bear.” When I caught up with him, he had plenty to say about black bear/human conflicts in Garrett County.

“The bear situation in Western Maryland is pretty heated right now,” he reports. Many local citizens want a hunting season on bears, since, they say, Natural Resources isn’t doing enough to keep “nuisance” bears at bay.

He had more to say about that subject, but first I had to know what it meant to work a bear.

“We scare the bejesus out of it,” he said, explaining his non-lethal method of “aversive conditioning” for changing a repeat offender’s behavior. “In the early days of the bear project, we would trap the bear and relocate it. Now we provide negative feedback. We spray it with pepper spray, then fire non-lethal rubber buckshot at it. Following that, we fire shell-crackers, like shooting firecrackers out of a gun.”

What have the black bears of Western Maryland done to deserve such treatment?

They’ve thrived.

Black bear abounded in Maryland in the 17th century, when early settlers began to hunt them. The first bounty on bears was placed in Somerset County in 1728. By 1972, Maryland’s black bear was listed as an endangered species.

Re-established by human intervention, bears have rebounded. Over 300 black bears now inhabit the state, with two-thirds of those roaming the woods of Garrett County. As the bear population grows, so does the human population in bear habitat where vacation homes are booming. Loss of heavily forested habitat leads to unavoidable encounters, particularly because the bears require much woodland to roam. What’s more, bears carry a big appetite, which leads them straight to people.

The most common complaints against bears are getting into trash bins and birdfeeders. To working a bear, Spiker prefers offering humans practical advice, like keeping trash locked up, rinsing cans frequently to prevent odors and freezing meat scraps until trash day. Other tips include taking pet food in at night and feeding birds only from November through March, when bears are denned.

Understanding the bears’ behavior and habits goes a long way in preventing conflicts between bears and us. Here’s where the Task Force’s recommendations involving prevention come into play: eliminate attractants, store food and erect fences.

When bears won’t heed practical advice, Spiker turns to scare tactics. One such trick is hanging ammonia balloons coated with peanut butter. When the bear bites into the balloon, it gets a whiff of ammonia.

When humans won’t heed practical advice, trouble brews. Many bear problems are created by tourists, who come to see bears and lure them with such devices as smearing trash can lids with cake icing.

“Bears are real intelligent,” explains Spiker. “They’ll keep coming back to the trash if they can get an easy meal. The next week we get a call from the subsequent renters who have a two-year-old and are scared of the bears wandering around their trash.”

When you’re serving an easy meal that can’t be put away, you’ve got a tougher conflict to resolve. That’s the case of farmers and ranchers, whose corn is grazed and sheep are stolen by bears. Of those sort, Striker hears about 30 legitimate complaints each year.

The Maryland Black Bear Conservation Stamp was devised as a funding source for farmers whose crops were damaged by bears. That’s all well and fine, say farmers, but the bear stamp fund doesn’t cover their losses — and it keeps them busy filling out forms instead of tending fields and flocks. Revenues from the sale of the stamp, which amounted to $36,000 last year, have covered only 40 to 70 percent of the damages.

This is a tough one. The Task Force recommends increased efforts to promote the black bear stamp. But will that be enough?

Not according to Garrett County Commissioner Wendell Bitzel, who calls his property a “thoroughfare” for bears traveling to tourist lodges near Deep Creek State Park.

“It’s been a big flop,” says Bitzel, who testified in favor of state legislation authorizing permits to shoot bears that destroy crops and damage property and livestock.

Many farmers, as well, have allied with hunters in hopes that a hunting season on black bear — or at least retaliatory shooting — will smooth, if not solve, the problem.

House of Delegates Speaker Casper Taylor, himself a Western Marylander from Allegany County, proposed legislation to permit a resident to kill a “nuisance bear” if damage to property or agricultural products could be shown or a threat to humans or animals demonstrated. But the bill died this session in the Senate, and the bear live on.

“I’m sure we’re going to try for it again next year,” says Terry Harman, vice president of the Maryland Sportsmen’s Association, Western District.

From the bears’ point of view, things aren’t going so well either. Thirty bears died from collisions with vehicles last year. Eleven bears were killed in other ways, including four poached, two killed by landowners for killing sheep and one hit by a train.

Our National Nuisance?
Is our national symbol a nuisance? The answer may be yes for some developers. Last spring in Deale, a pair of nesting bald eagles stopped plans for a Safeway at the intersection of Routes 258 and 256. Perhaps that’s going a bit far, says Glenn Therres, Natural Resources’ man on the big birds.

The eagles were actually on the edge of the required quarter-mile development restriction zone imposed by the state Endangered Species Act and the Critical Areas Law, which require local jurisdictions to protect the habitat of threatened species.

Still, news of the active nest was enough to justify one of many delays cheered by growth opponents and denounced by supporters of the shopping center’s choice of building sites. The Deale eagles ably held up the Safeway project from the time the nest was discovered in November 2000 until the pair flew the coop in May 2001 without raising any young.

Bald eagles are protected by law from any “lethal taking.” They remain on the state and federal Threatened Species Lists, despite a heralded comeback to the Bay region. Numbers released last month from the 2001 annual count by the Chesapeake Bay Program show a 16 percent increase from the year 2000, with 618 active nests producing 908 eaglets.

Even eagles seem to be adapting to human lifestyles.

Despite more eagles and people along our shorelines, Therres reports only about a dozen projects a year with eagles nesting within a quarter mile of proposed development. Most Maryland eagles prefer places with low development pressures.

The Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas Program has successfully checked human growth in areas that contain 80 percent of bald eagle nests, says Therres, who flies low over them for each year’s count. What’s more, that program was strengthened by this year’s legislature, and extended to the coastal bays of Worcester County. Still, the biologist believes eagles will be pushed out of areas with high human population densities.

Anne Arundel County, for example, has miles of shoreline but few eagles. Based on a population density of one eagle every three miles of shoreline in some parts of the state, the Magothy and Severn rivers could support two to three pair each. But only one pair nests on the Severn and none on the Magothy.

To help eagles and humans better adapt to one another, the Task Force recommends extra help from the University of Maryland’s Cooperative Extension, Natural Resources’ Urban Wildlife Program and a special team to assist communities in resolving conflicts that arise over wildlife issues. The first step — and a vital one for threatened and endangered species — is educating landowners on the importance of biodiversity in our ecosystem.

Meanwhile, there is evidence that eagles can endure a certain amount of human company.

Consider a case in Anne Arundel County where a pair of eagles has been successfully nesting within 300 feet of a house for a decade, and another on Kent Island where a pair nested within 50 feet of two homes, rebuilding their nest in the same yard after a storm blew down their original nesting tree.

For the second year, eagles nest on the Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River, in plain sight of drivers on the ramp connecting Route 210 with Interstate 295. Some 200,000 vehicles pass within about a quarter mile of the bridge every day, indicating that eagles may become habituated to human activity near their nest sites.

That’s fine for eagles, but deer can’t roost in trees or on bridges.

Deer in the Floodlights
Days after a summer hike in the woods, my husband complained of sore joints and a headache that wouldn’t quit. “I felt like someone was driving nails into my knuckles and ankles,” he remembers grimly. Several visits to the doctor and a night in the ER confirmed Lyme disease, a painful, sometimes debilitating illness associated with the bite of the tiny deer tick. Maryland ranks among the top 10 states for incidence of Lyme disease.

Deer are familiar neighbors nowadays. But it wasn’t always so. The white-tailed deer, the only native deer to the state, was hunted nearly to extinction by the colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were reintroduced in the early 20th century with overwhelming success. Deer increasingly show up in parks, on suburban lawns and in rural gardens.

As more deer must live in smaller spaces, suburban landscapes must seem like a patchwork of summer picnics, lush with a mix of ornamental and exotic plantings that deer often prefer to native plants. What’s a responsible homeowner and gardener to do to keep deer out of the garden and deer ticks off the family?

The best defense is to prevent the deer from entering the yard, counsels Scott Healey, USDA’s representative.

People who’ve contended with deer in the gardens for years come to the same conclusion: Only an eight-foot fence is 100 percent successful in keeping deer at bay. These fences can be made virtually invisible to owners and neighbors, but some housing association contracts forbid such fencing. Good for them, say the deer.

“In the artificial habitat we provide with suburban development, we’re providing the perfect habitat for deer to proliferate,” says the Humane Society’s McElroy.

McElroy gets up close and personal with deer in her work in immunocontraception at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg. With the deft handling of a dart gun, she injects proteins in the female deer that induce an immune response in the body, preventing sperm from matching receptor sites in the doe’s eggs. In other words, she prevents deer from procreating by “changing the lock so the key won’t fit.”

McElroy concedes there are times when lethal controls are the only answer to deer population control, but “only as a last resort and in the most humane way possible.” In the case of deer, she suggests trained sharpshooters to thin out populations and doe-only hunts for several years.

… And Headlights
Who among us hasn’t seen a deer in our headlights when driving along wooded highways in the hours between dusk and dawn? Auto accidents involving deer climb to the thousands every year. Increased traffic supported by increased miles of roads that fragment deer habitat are part of the reason the numbers are so high.

For the sake of both deer and people, the Task Force considered wildlife warning roadside reflectors. But such reflectors may not be the answer, as deer may become habituated to them as they’ve adapted to considerable light in urban settings.

Education seems the best solution. The Task Force wants planners, developers and transportation agencies to learn that roads and bridges can be built with wildlife underpasses or overpasses for safe passage and with fences to keep deer off roadways. Planting undesirable vegetation in median strips also turns wildlife to tastier meals.

Meanwhile, deer hunting continues. The General Assembly has just lengthened the deer hunting season from 13 to 21 days including one Sunday. But hunting is banned in urban areas — most of Anne Arundel and Frederick counties, plus Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince Georges counties as well as Baltimore City. Here deer populations deemed to have exceeded carrying capacity are culled by bait, professional sharpshooters, lethal darts, capture or euthanasia.

When All Else Fails, There’s Humor
What bird lover has not been frustrated by the pernicious gray squirrel, whose acrobatic finesse can outwit any squirrel-proof feeder?

But Bill Sipple of Millersville reports a different kind of squirrel problem. The naturalist observed over the course of several seasons that the gray squirrels in his backyard were snipping off twigs from a variety of his trees, but most notably his flowering dogwoods and white oaks.

“One spring,” he reports, “I accumulated 1,239 twigs from under my backyard trees that were snipped off by gray squirrels. The effect on flower production was substantial.”

Read from Bill Sipple’s Maryland Journal: Outdoor and Natural History Observations and Experiences, 1997, this entry from March 1, 1997:

I spotted a gray squirrel hectically zipping up and down the trunk of the large white oak that supports my shelf feeder. This observation confirms that the squirrel is in fact responsible for the accumulation of branches below the oak. There is now literally a pile that is readily observable from my kitchen window. By a quick count, I get 224 branches.

The beast quickly gnaws off a branch and scampers up to a major crotch where it shuffles around with it, sometimes storing it there, sometimes losing it, whereupon the branch drops to the ground.

What kind of behavior is this? It’s not feeding on the buds as far as I can tell. There is no ball of leaves in the crotch, so it doesn’t appear to be making a nest. What then?

Like other rodents, squirrels will chew almost anything, as the gnawed edges of my deck fencing can prove. If they don’t keep their teeth in check, their dental growth can lead to the squirrel’s demise. Natural Resources fields numerous calls about beaver for the same reasons. They recommend baffles to prevent beaver from chewing trees. But baffling for squirrels? It seems that we’ll just have to learn to live with these creatures.

They’ve been pests at least since European settlement. Squirrels were one of the first animals with a bounty placed on their little heads. Squirrel scalps were worth two pounds of tobacco each.

Teach Your Children Well
“People do not live in a vacuum. We will have encounters with wildlife,” says Michael Markarian, Task Force member and vice president for The Fund for Animals.

I learned this firsthand when a goldfinch, who had been feasting on my suburban thistle feeder, mistook my glass sliding door as a safe passage and flew right into it. It lay on my deck, unconscious or dead, for too many minutes. When my five-year-old daughter and I saw movement, we made a haven for it out of the cat’s travel cage, gently placed the bird inside, left it in the open air with some food and water and hoped for the best. Several hours later, the bird was gone, to my relief.

A study by Project FeederWatch reports that every bird feeder kills one to 10 birds a year this way.

I am humbled. Still, my five-year-old knows some 10 species of birds by sight. She’ll care more deeply about the birds because she knows them by name and sees them up close.

Biologists and wildlife experts agree. The more people know about an animal and its biology, the more likely they are to find enjoyment rather than conflict.

“The best way to avoid conflict is by education,” says Kanstoroom, chair of the Task Force. “There are tremendous solutions out there, but if some animal chews your prize plantings, that doesn’t feel good. The best solution is to keep the problem from happening in the first place.”

So Kanstoroom, Markarian, McElroy, Healey and the other Task Force members hope the governor and legislature will take the report to heart and will implement these ideas.

In the meantime, clean up your trash. Plant native plants, and fence in those that aren’t. Cheer on the squirrels. Welcome the eagles, and, well, make noise at those vultures. Up close, they’re really pretty cute.

Read the 55-page report of the Maryland Task Force on Non-Lethal Wildlife Management at

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Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly