Animal rights and wrongs: drawing a line between wilderness and the garden

Living adjacent to a federal wildlife refuge has its pros and cons. On the plus side, we take comfort in knowing that there will never be ski slopes or condominium clusters in our view. And we take pride in thinking that our own conservation efforts add to those next door. We would feel far more beleaguered if our 100-acre parcel were a tiny wooded island in a vast sea of development.

But there are also drawbacks. Wildlife refuges are intended to be sanctuaries. The problem is that their occupants don’t always remain inside. The boundaries of this one are clearly marked by blue-and-white metal signs inscribed with the flying goose logo of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But there is no fence just a century-old waist-high stone wall marking the 4,000 feet of property line that we share. No one has mended the wall in generations, and many of the lichen-covered rocks have been toppled by falling tree trunks or heaving ice, leaving the wall of little use but to surveyors as a sight line through the deepening woods.

The deer, porcupines, beaver, and snowshoe rabbits that have multiplied as the open fields have reverted to forest can’t read the signs. Neither can the foxes, woodchucks, skunks, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, moles, voles, mice, and birds that also leave the refuge at will. Walking, stalking, waddling, hopping, jumping, running, tunneling, flying, gliding–the traffic is heavy. Even the moose are back. Seeing one of these long-legged, large-kneed beasts lurching through the alders like some misplaced camel is a naturalist’s delight.

To a gardener, however, it is another matter. I’ve seen what a newly planted asparagus patch looks like when a moose has walked through. I’ve had my raspberries flattened by hungry porcupines reaching for the tender cane tips. Deer have devoured half of every head of cabbage down the row and rubbed all the bark off the stems of my hybrid elderberries with their antlers. They have chewed the buds off my apple trees and the tops off my overwintering parsnips. The corn that the crows missed, the raccoons got. Woodchucks eating squash, mice eating potatoes, squirrels eating peaches, beavers cutting down trees to build their dam–name the bird or beast, and we’ve probably had trouble with it. Read more