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Life With Wildlife

For more and more Americans, viewing wild creatures doesn't need to entail a trip to the zoo or Yellowstone. Many people can see them out their windows, as though on an armchair North American safari. And the animals are not just your run-of-the-backyard deer or rabbits.

Some residents now see grizzly bears, especially in fast-growing resort areas of Montana. Cougars are returning in parts of the West, not far from outlying suburbs, while wolves are being reintroduced and extending their range in the upper Midwest and northern Rockies.

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Moose and turkeys are being spotted in suburban Boston, and beavers are at work near Northeast subdivisions, flooding basements with their dams.

Decades of conservation and protection of wildlife have forced a new integration onto an ever-expanding pattern of human settlement. The concept of wilderness as something distant and pristine no longer holds. The beasts now join the picnic.

Assuming the old ways of animal control – hunting and trapping – won't come back into use, people will need to adapt in other ways. Most Americans like the idea of wild areas restored with native wildlife – including predators hunted or trapped to near-extinction in centuries past – but in a NIMBY way. Coexisting with nature's larger, often dangerous creatures requires more than abstract enjoyment.

People heading into national parks are regularly briefed about respecting wildlife, particularly bears that appear friendly. Preservation groups hold workshops to teach common-sense rules about predators – like clearing away brush that might serve as backyard hiding places, or not tempting them by leaving pet food outside.

Sometimes the teaching goes the other way. Wildlife managers in parts of Montana, for instance, use bear-harassment methods to instruct grizzlies about the hazards of lolling around human dwellings.

Living closer to wildlife also poses problems to the economy. The conflict between those who raise livestock and the predators that threaten their herds remains a top concern. Complaints from ranchers and farmers can still put the brakes on reintroduction efforts. And in the case of cougars and grizzlies, direct threats to humans are an issue that needs constant attention.

How much can wildlife really return to former habitats that no longer have all the checks and balances of a viable ecosystem? How much of their return is truly natural, or rather just reflects misguided notions of what North America looked like in the year 1491?

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And if predators do help restore a natural balance – by controlling overpopulation of deer and rodents – what do they also imbalance, such as the safety of children walking to school?

With bigger wild creatures no longer just in the "wilderness" but next door – whether it's beaver or coyotes – government leaders need to decide when the trap or the gun may come back into play, wielded, hopefully, by a humane expert.

Already, many cities and towns take measures to reduce populations of deer and Canada geese, often without killing. Ongoing public education, acquainting people with hard as well as pleasant facts about wildlife, should make coexistence less problematic for all species.