Public Policy Crisis: Bears Go in the Woods
This is a page 1 story in today’s Washington Post: Animal waste is a major cause of pollution.
Does a bear leave its waste in the woods? Of course. So do geese, deer, muskrats, raccoons and other wild animals. And now, such states as Virginia and Maryland have determined that this plays a significant role in water pollution.
Scientists have run high-tech tests on harmful bacteria in local rivers and streams and found that many of the germs — and in the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, a majority of them– come from wildlife dung. The strange proposition that nature is apparently polluting itself has created a serious conundrum for government officials charged with cleaning up the rivers.
I’m not an environmental scientist but this is something I have long considered obvious. We needed a major study to figure out that wild animals poop outside? And it’s page 1 news?
It gets better!
Part of the problem lies with the unnaturally high populations of deer, geese and raccoons living in modern suburbs and depositing their waste there. But officials say it would be nearly impossible, and wildly unpopular, to kill or relocate enough animals to make a dent in even that segment of the pollution.
So, we shouldn’t try to round up all the wild animals to prevent them from pooping outside? Really? Perhaps fodder for another NSF grant: Would the animals continue producing waste if relocated?
That leaves scientists and environmentalists struggling with a more fundamental question: How clean should we expect nature to be? In certain cases, they say, the water standards themselves might be flawed, if they appear to forbid something as natural as wild animals leaving their dung in the woods. “You need to go back and say, ‘Maybe the standards aren’t exactly right’ if wildlife are causing the problem,” said Thomas Henry, an Environmental Protection Agency official who works on water pollution in the mid-Atlantic.
Well, no. Either water is safe for whatever purpose humans would put it to or it isn’t. The public policy question is what to do if it isn’t safe. Presumably, if the cause of the contaminants is human, we would redirect the activity. If it’s naturally occuring, we either stop using the water for the purposes for which it is unsafe or figure out a way to filter the water.
To some scientists, this makes perfect sense. They point out that a few wild animals have managed to thrive in the environments that humans create: Deer feast on suburban flowers; raccoons raid backyard pet-food bowls. Nonmigratory Canada geese, descended in part from geese brought to this area as live hunting decoys, have fallen so much in love with golf courses and groomed city parks that their East Coast population now stands at 1.1 million.
It could be the ultimate irony of people’s impact on nature that the entire system has changed so radically that wild animals now degrade their own environment. More animals means more bacteria-laden waste. Some of that is swept by storm water into rivers and streams.
News flash: Animals were degrading their own environment all along, just as humans have done. Life requires the consumption of resources and production of waste products. Animals adapt by changing habitats or evolving; otherwise, they die. Only humans create technological solutions to fix their environment.