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At Home in the Suburbs

  • James Dunn
  • By James R. Dunn

    Many environmentalists worry that suburban growth is reducing the diversity of wildlife. The Sierra Club’s Carl Pope recently wrote that urban sprawl “fragments landscapes–and fragmented landscapes are the biggest threat to America’s wildlife heritage” (Pope 1999, 6).

    This claim may be true in California, but it is not supported in New York State. I live on abandoned farmland in a suburban area outside Albany that looks like a wildlife refuge.

    When our agricultural lands are abandoned because they are no longer competitive, they usually reforest naturally. Subsequently, when these lands near cities become residential areas, people typically plant trees and shrubs, often in places where there have been none before. Deer habitat improves, as does habitat for robins, woodpeckers, chickadees, grouse, finches, hawks, crows, and nut-hatches, as well as squirrels, chipmunks, opossums, raccoons, foxes, and rabbits. My backyard has more than fifty bird species.

    Today, even once-extirpated species like turkey and coyote are abundant enough to be hunted near where I live. Bear, mountain lion, and moose are occasionally spotted. Wildlife in New York State overall is more abundant now than in 1492.

    Measuring the quality of wildlife habitats is not easy, but one statistic, the annual harvest of buck deer by hunters, is a good reflection of how well the habitat nurtures deer and also an indicator of the quality of habitat for many birds and other animals.1 To determine the quality of this habitat, I tabulated buck deer harvests for counties containing or adjacent to major cities across New York State. These are the “suburbanized” counties. I then compared those statistics to average state records.

    Since 1970, the deer population multiplied 7.1 times (a 610 percent increase) in suburban areas and only 3.4 times (a 240 percent increase) in the state overall (see figure). And for the entire 68-year period from 1930 to 1998, the deer herd increased 44.1 times in suburban areas versus 12.6 times for the state as a whole (Severinghaus and Brown 1956; Stickney 1983; Department of Environmental Conservation 1998). Clearly, areas of maximum suburbanization produce a better habitat for deer than do other areas of the state.2

    The improvement in deer habitat began with the loss of farmland during the twentieth century, as modern agricultural technology led to greater food production from less land and the prime farming areas shifted westward. It continued as people in the cities became wealthier and began moving out into land that had been previously farmed. The best areas for most wildlife are the places with abundant wood edges–the fragmented landscapes of suburbia. One researcher found this to be the case in California and even in Finland (Goudie 1990, 100-101).

    Nonsuburban New York State is typical of the eastern states in which most of the 209 million acres of America’s abandoned farmlands are located. When farming was abandoned, the land typically reverted to natural cover. In New York State, forest cover increased from 25 percent in 1900 (Stanton 1992) to 61 percent in the 1990s, according to the latest New York State Department of Environmental Conservation statistics.

    At first, as farms returned to forest, the fragmented landscape, as in suburbia today, was good for wildlife, and deer proliferated. However, as the forests matured, the food available for deer began to drop off. In many areas, once the present-day almost continuous forest was achieved, as in the Adirondacks, wildlife did not fare so well. In the Adirondack wilderness, where much of the forest is over one hundred years old, the deer count is down. In the Adirondacks’ Hamilton County, for example, deer harvests were high in the period 1930-1965, but have dropped by 50 percent since then (Severinghaus and Brown 1956; Stickney 1983; Department of Environmental Conservation 1998).

    Conditions in the Adirondacks are similar to those of the entire Appalachian chain from Maine through Alabama and Georgia. The almost unbroken forest is beautiful to see and experience, but it is not prime wildlife habitat. Similarly, deer harvests in the heavily forested states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont have been dropping in recent years, due in part to the diminution of prime habitat.

    During my years as a geologist in this area, I discovered that many roads on old topographic maps are no longer used. These roads serviced a checkerboard of farms, orchards, and grazing lands during the 1800s and until about 1920. The roads were abandoned when agricultural lands were no longer needed. Thus the trend in this forest area has been toward greater continuity, not toward less, in spite of what critics say about “suburbanization.”

    The causes of the great changes I have described have much to do with economics and little to do with conservationists. Audubon recently published a list of the greatest conservationists of the twentieth century (Graham 1998). The list was what you might expect. No producers of wealth; mostly writers, crusaders, politicians, and bureaucrats–individuals such as Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, Lester Brown; several presidents; and historical figures like John Muir and Gifford Pinchot.

    Yet when I look around at my little suburban forest, I realize that none of the people on Audubon‘s list contributed in any significant way to the conservation miracle that surrounds me. So I want to prepare an alternate list. The great conservationists on my list would include the entrepreneurs and innovators behind Dow Chemical, International Harvester, Monsanto, Caterpillar Tractor, and John Deere. These are the people directly responsible for the almost unbroken forest that extends from Maine’s Canadian border down the Appalachians almost to the Gulf of Mexico and, indirectly, for my small forest with its frequent wood edges. By revolutionizing agriculture, they have changed our landscape, giving some of us a chance to walk for hours on end without the interference of civilization and others a chance to mingle with wild animals.

    My wife and I enjoy our little forest in what was once an apple orchard. We are grateful for the conditions that have prolonged our lives and made them more comfortable while simultaneously multiplying the trees and the wildlife that surround us.


    1. Carl Pope notes that deer and some other animals have benefited from suburban growth, but he dismisses them as “adaptable and common” species.

    2. Although New York State began keeping records in 1927, the records were sketchy before 1930. Hence, I used the interval 1930-1998 in my tabulations.


    Goudie, A. 1990. The Human Impact on the Natural Environment. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

    Graham, Frank, Jr. 1998. 100 Years of Conservation. Audubon, November/December.

    New York State Department of Conservation. 1998. New York State Deer Take by County and Town. Albany.

    Pope, Carl. 1999. Americans Are Saying No to Sprawl. PERC Reports 17(1): 5-7.

    Severinghaus, C. W., and C. P. Brown. 1956. History of the White Tailed Deer in New York. New York Fish and Game Journal 3(2): 130-67.

    Stanton, B. F. 1992. The Changing Landscape of New York Agriculture in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca: Department of Agricultural Economics, New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University.

    Stickney, M. D. 1983. Addendum to the History of the White-Tailed Deer in New York, Deer Take 1956-1982. Albany: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

    James R. Dunn, Ph.D., is the retired founder and president of Dunn Corporation, an environmental consulting firm. He is co-author with John E. Kinney of Conservative Environmentalism (Westport, CT: Quorum Books).

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