It started with a book, as these things so often do. The Humane Gardener:Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife, in this case, by Nancy Lawson. I purchased the book back in the early spring of 2019, when I was just getting excited about gardens and harvests and canning anything and everything in the season to come.
The Humane Gardener makes the case for taking others into consideration when planning gardens and home habitats, however, and – because this is me we’re talking about – I got a little carried away with that. Ultimately, what happened that summer was…not much. In order to create this backyard habitat I was dreaming about, I didn’t know what to pull up and what to keep in terms of beneficial plant life; I didn’t know where or how much I should plant if I wanted to have a garden of our own while also sustaining wild critters on our land. Basically, I knew exactly enough to stop me in my tracks for the 2019 growing season. We still managed to harvest some cukes and some tomatoes, it was a great year for berries, I think we managed to get some kale out of things by the time all was said and done. But, really, it wasn’t a stellar year for our food garden. The fox that called this place home seemed to be happy with the way things were going, but otherwise I have no real evidence that anything I did or didn’t do that summer made any impact on anyone, good or bad.
Once summer was done, I started reading a bit more on the concept of making your home a place more hospitable for wild things. Not a lot of reading, though, mostly just tidbits here and there.
And then came the foxes.
In the Bath/Phippsburg/Brunswick area, a spate of attacks by rabid foxes over the past couple of years had fueled a frenzy among a few citizens who were determined to put an end to the problem. Ideally, by putting an end to the foxes. A contract was signed between the Bath City Council and the USDA in February 2020, to set out traps to capture “rabies-vector species” and test the unfortunates who ended up in those traps, for rabies. The USDA would be paid $21,000 for their services. If you’re not aware, you can only test an animal for rabies once it’s dead, which meant that any animals trapped would be killed, whether healthy or not. The contract was done without knowledge or input from the public; once the public found out, however, it turned out there were a few people who had a problem with it.
I was one of those people. For a month, I went to meetings, wrote emails, made phone calls, and generally made a nuisance of myself. While I was doing those things, I started reading again.
This time, I read a lot.
Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home and Nature’s Best Hope; The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds: Creating Natural Habitats for Properties Large and Small, by Stephen Kress; Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway. I learned that the primary reason we were having issues with rabid foxes in our picturesque Maine towns was because we’d shrunk their habitat to the point where (1) rabies-vector species were forced to live closer to humans, which meant if there was a rabies outbreak we were going to see it, and (2) that shrinking habitat meant it was more likely that rabies would spread among the animals now crowded into this ever-diminishing sphere of habitable land.
I also learned that foxes are an incredibly effective control on the rodent population, consuming up to two pounds of rodent and insect protein per day, which in turn means they keep tick populations down – which is kind of important in these parts, given the rate of tick-borne illness in Maine. I learned that places around the world – including large parts of the United States – have used the coordinated distribution of baited ORV (Oral Rabies Vaccine) pellets to all but eliminate wildlife rabies in their area. Maine is actually part of that coordinated effort, but at this point the program is only being done in the eastern part of the state.
I learned a bunch of other things, most of which was shared with the Bath City Council by Bath residents, scientists, and wildlife experts. The biggest thing I learned, however, was something stated well by the World Health Organization, and re-stated in multiple other studies trying to solve the same problem (rabies) with the same time-worn, ineffective solution (trap and kill). WHO’s findings?
Past strategies for elimination of wildlife rabies included reducing primary host density by culling, on the basis of the rationale that rabies transmission is density-dependent, disease incidence increasing proportionally with host density. Rabies transmission in wildlife may, however, be less dependent on density than was previously assumed; therefore, reducing host population density is unlikely to be effective in controlling or eliminating the disease (36). This conclusion is borne out by observations that widescale culling campaigns to reduce wild carnivore populations have failed to eliminate the disease (37). Reducing the primary host density is therefore not recommended as a means of controlling rabies in wildlife for humane, economic and ecological reasons.
Trap-and-kill may lower the population of rabies-vector species (specifically, foxes, raccoons, and skunks) in a region for a short time, but others ultimately move in to fill the gap and you’re back to square one. The only proven effective way to combat rabies when you’re dealing with wildlife in an urban setting is by instituting some type of baited vaccine program. In the meantime, rabies outbreaks tend to run in cycles that ultimately burn themselves out; the animals who remain have a natural immunity to the virus, while those who had it typically die within ten days of exhibiting symptoms. In the meantime, educating the public about how to interact with wildlife in their midst is a far more effective solution than simply ejecting that wildlife.
Baited vaccine programs take planning and work and coordination (and, let’s be honest, money), however. Why bother with all of that when you can throw $21K at another government agency and they’ll saddle up with their traps – during breeding season, no less – in order to trap and kill any foxes, raccoons, or skunks who happen to fall into their hands?
Because of the degree of public scrutiny and protest the City of Bath was getting thanks to their decision on the trap-and-kill, they chose to take a second vote after arguments were heard. The plan was approved, again.
In March of 2020, just as a global pandemic was shutting down the world as we know it, the USDA set their plan in motion, and began setting traps in the South End of Bath to trap and kill rabies-vector species. The city has been highly circumspect about that process, refusing to release any information on exactly how many traps were set or where. A report is supposed to come out by the end of June detailing how many animals that were ultimately caught tested positive for rabies. It’s worth noting, however, that for all the fuss from us about not killing foxes, not a single fox was actually trapped in this process. Instead, twenty-eight raccoons and skunks were trapped, killed, and tested; three cats were trapped and released.
While I’ve been waiting for follow-up information on this whole beastly process, I’ve continued to educate myself on the importance of re-building habitat for wildlife – not just the songbirds, bees, and butterflies that get all the press, but the so-called “nuisance” wildlife that now share our cities and towns. Raccoons, skunks, possums, coyotes, foxes, deer… As we continue to voraciously consume the places where they can live and thrive, it’s inevitable that they must find some way to sneak into the corners and edges of our ever-expanding society if they are to survive.
So, I’m working on “re-wilding” our property, a term I learned from artist and landscape designer Kdb Dominguez during the Save the Fox campaign. I’ve started a website devoted to the process, and have designed my own kind of two-year Master’s program, integrating homesteading and wildlife conservation through permaculture. Ben and I are letting a good portion of our lawn grow out into meadow, and I recently met with Deb Perkins of FirstLight Habitats to identify all invasive, non-native plants on our land and begin phasing those out in favor of more beneficial native plants, while simultaneously building a wildlife pond and restoring a vernal pool adjacent to the property. I’m taking a three-week permaculture intensive through the Resilience Hub in order to better understand how to apply permaculture principles to my mission, and I’m working on doing a much better job this year on our own food garden.
So… That’s what I’ve been up to. In this age of coronavirus, climate change, and an increasing understanding of the depth of racism and racial injustice in this country, it feels good to be proactive about something. Apart from a raging infection from poison ivy and brown-tail moth caterpillars, it feels good to be outside in the fresh air, making something happen. And it feels great to connect with others who share a passion for wildlife in this state and beyond.
I’ll have more information about my website and progress in next month’s post. In the meantime, if you have any interest in learning more about the plight of wildlife, the importance of habitat, and what you can do to help, I highly recommend Doug Tallamy’s books. There’s a lot to be hopeless about right now, but there are also things you can do to make a difference – many of them right in your own backyard.
Jen Blood is the USA Today-bestselling author of the Erin Solomon Mysteries and the Flint K-9 Search and Rescue Mysteries. Learn more about her work at http://www.jenblood.com.