As he sipped coffee on the sunny back porch of his tidy downtown
home in Northampton, Mass., Andrew Shelffo suddenly caught sight of
a dark, hulking presence, standing six feet high at the shoulder.
"At first, I just thought 'Holy cow, there's a moose in my
driveway!,' " he recalls. "Then I wondered: 'Do I follow it - or go
get my camera so people will believe me?' "
It turns out many people across the United States would have no
trouble believing Mr. Shelffo. Over the past decade, stories of
urbanites and wildlife coming into closer and more frequent contact
In May, police shot a mountain lion in a tree of a residential
community in Silicon Valley. In July, a suburban Connecticut
housewife looked out her window and saw a black bear pawing through
her garbage. In June, a moose galloped through the tony urban
neighborhood of Wellesley, Mass., with police in hot pursuit.
"The whole thing has freaked out my parents' neighborhood," wrote
one Wellesley resident in an online discussion.
Now, federal researchers can confirm a trend many have long
thought existed: Human contact with a surprising variety of wildlife
is reaching new highs. According to a decade of previously
unreleased federal data, wild animals are moving in with the
In 2002, the US saw a record 237,766 wildlife-human conflicts,
according to data collected by the US Department of Agriculture's
Wildlife Services program. Of those, 38 percent occurred in urban
and suburban settings. While the overall number of reported
conflicts declined last year, the urban and suburban share rose to
43 percent - the highest reported percentage in at least a decade
(see chart, next page).
Some say the return of wildlife to American communities has much
to do with increased habitat - the regrowth of tree cover across
millions of acres of the Northeast, for instance. Suburban sprawl
has also pushed into previously wild areas and, at the same time,
provided a safe, food-rich habitat for deer, black bears, coyotes,
and other species that can adapt to human presence.
"With so much suburban sprawl, more people are encountering these
critters," says Marion Larson, a biologist with the Massachusetts
Division of Fisheries and Wildlife in Westboro, Mass. "Over the past
20 years the number of calls over suburban wildlife issues has
Most encounters are not life-threatening. Damage to property is
far more frequent than a scary encounter, let alone an attack.
Still, wildlife threats to human health and safety have reached new
highs among some species in the past two years.
Take coyotes - considered by some the "bad boys" of wildlife
encroachment. They were responsible for a decade-high 9,657 health
and safety cases in 2002, a 520 percent increase over 1996 - far
more than other species. Such cases are considered dangerous enough
that federal Wildlife Services officials either provide technical
advice or conduct projects to remove animals from rural and urban
Although coyotes rank only fifth among 15 species most frequently
reported to Wildlife Services - well behind raccoons, skunks, Canada
geese, and beaver - they're regarded as more dangerous. As coyotes
pushed into the Northeast, for example, Massachusetts wildlife
officials have seen a steady rise in the number of calls from
worried suburbanites asking whether coyotes are a threat to children
and their pets. Answer: It depends on the age of the child and the
circumstances - and yes, small pets are at risk.
Oh my, lions and bears
Black bears, meanwhile, generated a record 1,702 such health-and-
safety reports last year, a 59 percent rise since 1998, the agency
reported. Feral hogs, which live in 23 states, including California
and Texas, caused a surge of damage throughout the 1990s, peaking in
Mountain lion health-and-safety incidents also peaked in 1999 at
435, thereafter drifting downward to 207 last year. …