What happens when beavers, turkeys, white-tailed deer, bear and Canada geese settle in your neighborhood in increasing numbers, damming ponds, damaging farms, spreading Lyme disease, raiding garbage cans and defecating on the 18th green? Award-winning journalist Jim Sterba turns to military terms to describe the ensuing conflicts, the wars taking place and battlegrounds being established across America as animal activists lock horns with wildlife biologists, “species partisans” send death threats to elected officials and feral cat defenders fight their avian counterparts.

How did we reach this point in time where some neighborhoods are so fenced in to keep out deer “that their residents joke of living in prisoner-of-war camps”? Sterba sets the scene by tracing the renewal of forests, the spread of sprawl, and the highly successful efforts to reintroduce species once nearly eliminated from their homelands. He tells the story of how Americans “turned a wildlife comeback miracle into a mess” even as they became increasingly estranged from nature.

A lot of history, both natural and unnatural, is woven into Sterba’s narrative. In the chapters devoted to the reintroduction of “wild beasts” he provides detailed and enlightening recaps of the downs and ups of creatures in relation to our efforts to either destroy or resurrect them. In the chapter on white-tailed deer, for example, he not only offers sobering data—there are three to four thousand deer-car collisions per day—but also the wonders of the white tail’s anatomy (their coats are “a marvel of premicrofleece engineering”). The chapter on Canada geese includes a fascinating sidebar on the use of live decoys.

Sterba offers many examples of how emotion rules over science. Wildlife management has become one of the most thankless jobs in the country as biologists are second-guessed—and attacked—by animal rights organizations. These conflicts are springing up all the time: Recently the singer Ke$ha, in Maine to perform on the Bangor waterfront, came out in favor of a renewed call to ban bear baiting. Excuse the Mainer who might question the rapper’s qualifications for weighing in on the issue. 

Sterba is expert at finding the perfect citation—or quip—to accent his narrative. Among my favorites was a back and forth regarding efforts to scare off turkeys in Maryland. Hearing that Christian talk radio seemed to “drive every wild creature insane,” a Christian broadcaster replied, “They’ve got to be left-wing turkeys.”

Other highlights of the book include what happens when you ask a group of geniuses at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton what they think about killing nuisance deer; accusations of a “goose Holocaust” in upstate New York; a consideration of roadkill (URPs: Unidentified Road Pizzas); the invention of the plastic bird feeder; and the extraordinary growth of pet supplies (including cat caskets) in America. 

Sterba came to his subject through journalism—in the 1990s he covered the increased conflicts between hunters and trappers and animal protection groups for the Wall Street Journal—but also from personal experience. Brought up on a farm in rural Michigan, he recalls a class trip to visit a local slaughterhouse that produced “Farmer Peet’s Tasty Meats.”

Part of Sterba’s story was inspired by time spent on Mount Desert Island (his book Frankie’s Place, a tribute to his wife, writer Frances FitzGerald, is set there). Indeed, the first chapter, titled “Spruce Illusion,” recounts how the author took it upon himself to combat grapevines that were overwhelming trees. When he subsequently learned from locals that the grapes had a better claim to the land than the birches, and that he was actually committing a crime worthy of prison time, Sterba ceased and desisted—and decided to learn about the shaping of the island and the New England landscape.

“Helping modern Americans understand and accept the need for human oversight isn’t an easy task,” Sterba states at the end of an epilogue that offers examples of both positive and negative progress in this effort. In addition to education, he concludes, regaining our connection to the outdoors means “getting up in the morning darkness now and then, walking into a forest, sitting under a tree, listening to the sounds, and watching nature’s day begin.”  

Carl Little’s most recent book is Nature & Culture: The Art of Joel Babb (University Press of New England).