I got a chuckle out of seeing that bumper sticker ahead of me while I waited at the stoplight. It got me thinking about all the crusades to save various species of wildlife I’ve seen over the years. When I was fresh out of college, there weren’t so many crusades, not nearly the number of animals designated as endangered as there are now, bumper stickers and posters for the various causes were uncommon. By the mid-’50s, I was becoming aware of causes other than soil conservation and the wisdom of having your dog or cat neutered. My first awareness of conservation of wildlife was the bag limits in our state’s hunting laws and the duration of the hunting seasons. I didn’t think of that so much as conservation as simply a way to control the numbers of people running around the countryside with lethal weapons.
I was really surprised to learn of a large sanctuary for geese located in northwestern Iowa where the lakes and marshes are plentiful and Minnesota-like. For many years, the geese there have been protected. Their wings had been clipped so that they stayed in the area year-round. They were protected by strict hunting laws. The geese owned several small glacial lakes located near my husband’s hometown. Close to Spirit Lake and Okoboji, and not surrounded by resorts and summer cabins, these lakes were used mostly by only local citizens and everybody seemed to know when the fish were biting.
When the fish were biting, the fisherman were crowding around the best fishing spots, the accessible shorelines near the road where it was easy to pull over, park and haul out the lawn chair from the trunk, or just open the car door and fish from the front seat. On cool days, there were a number of little fires burning on the shoulder of the road, maybe keeping an old enamel pot of coffee hot, or roasting a couple hot dogs for the kids. And there were always the geese.
Having never been hunted, and possibly having learned the delights of picnic leftovers, the geese had no reason to fear the fishermen. They brought their families of goslings along to see the sights and beg for potato chips. When they realized that the cars would stop for them in the road, they invented a game called “Traffic Stoppers.” Winners often had their pictures taken by the fishermen’s wives and children. And the children threw them bread crusts, Milk Duds, and minnows from the fishermen’s bait pails.
When the fish weren’t biting, the geese explored the farmers’ fields. In spring, they sought out tender sprouts of corn breaking through the black soil. A moderate-size flock of goose families could pull up several acres of succulent young corn sprouts in a very short time. The farmers resorted to devices that fired what sounded like shotguns at measured intervals, but the geese soon became accustomed to the noise and generally ignored it. There were also gardens in town that furnished a virtual smorgasbord of treats for the bolder members of the species.
There was a time when deer were not hunted in Iowa. Sighting deer along country roads or in state parks was a rare treat, and most Iowans, under the influence of guys like Walt Disney and Felix Salton tended to call them Bambi and were awed by the rare sight of an antlered buck or a doe with her darling spotted twins. People who lived near wooded areas sometimes put out salt blocks and bales of hay in winter to attract the deer because, “they are so graceful and charming to watch.” By the time Iowans were allowed licenses to hunt deer, the deer population was well on its way to a baby boom. At first, only antlered bucks were fair game, thus protecting the does and young males. The deer population explosion continued until they became pests. They not only raided gardens and flower beds, they stripped plantings of young trees, killed off groves of Christmas trees, damaged orchards and, more and more frequently, wandered into urban areas. Disoriented, they crashed through plate glass windows, damaging property, injuring themselves, and endangering people.
At this late date, hunters, who were now allowed to shoot just about any deer they saw, noticed that they were smaller and less healthy. A wasting disease, caused in part by over-population, was Nature’s way of controlling the deer population, since the humans had got it wrong.
Protecting songbirds and migrating birds is one thing, protecting owls, hawks, and other birds of prey can get out of hand just as easily as the geese and deer– and in a much shorter span of time. Have you noticed that the cats that used to live in your barn are diminishing in number? Did that cute kitten your granddaughter liked to play with turn up missing? How would you like to see your new puppy dangling from the talons of a red-tailed hawk high overhead? It can happen. It does happen.