Monday, July 16, 2007

The Critters Among Us

This weekend, the beginnings of new holes appeared around our garden shed, the tell-tale signs of Mephitis mephitis ("Noxious gas, noxious gas") -- the striped skunk. This is hardly an unusual occurrence; judging by the signs--and smells--around our neighborhood, skunks are out patrolling the backyards most nights of the week. On a couple of occasions, I've almost stepped on them while out for a late evening jog on Boise's Greenbelt. Fortunately, the skunks spared me a blast of their musk. Some of our neighbor's dogs have not been so lucky.

The striped skunk, historically, was not so common around Idaho. Despite its formidable defenses, skunks fare poorly when matched against large predators. The same goes for raccoons and red foxes--two other critters that I now know as neighbors. In fact, before European settlement, no red foxes were found in the state. The suburban habitats and farm edges are to the fox's liking, much more so than wilderness.

As fragile as nature may at times seem, many species are also amazingly resilient. Of course, there are plenty of species that need the big, wide-open spaces. But others thrive near humanity. While we may complain about city park geese, or downtown pigeons, these species also present the most likely scenario for daily interactions with wildlife. When I find bits of pigeons scattered downtown--the remains of a successful peregrine falcon hunt--I thrill the wildness to be found even amidst the largest city in our state.

India, quite apart from a place like Idaho, is a country with more than one billion people. And how is wildlife faring there? Not as bad as you might expect, reports Nature Conservancy lead scientist Sanjayan in his latest column. In fact, Indians have learned how to live with wildlife in many places--including free-roaming monkeys at the Presidential Palace. Indians have found ways to live alongside wildlife, even while humans survive at incredible population densities.

If biodiversity is to exist outside national parks, we must learn to reconcile humanity's coexistence with wildlife. While I covered up the skunk diggings in my backyard to prevent further incursions, I'm also glad to share my neighborhood with such critters--provided they keep their stink to themselves.

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