John Davis photograph courtesy of Essex Editions
John Davis walks the walk for our wild neighbors
Last week John Davis heard that four dead coyotes had been found along a road a mile or so outside of Essex. They’d been shot.
Killing coyotes isn’t illegal. According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, each year 33,000 New Yorkers hunt and trap them. A license is required and there’s a designated hunting season, unless the animal is considered to be a “problem.” The dead, dumped animals were a reminder to Davis, a conservationist who has dedicated his life’s work to protecting wildlife and their migratory corridors, that there’s still much to be done.
And Davis has done plenty. He trekked 5,000 miles from Sonora, Mexico, to British Columbia, Canada, to advocate for the protection of a western wildway that animals rely on for survival. He journeyed 7,600 miles from the Florida Keys to Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula to bring that eastern wildlife corridor into the national discussion. Most recently, he completed the 193-mile Algonquin to Adirondacks Trail. The planned route, from Huntington Wildlife Forest, in Newcomb, to Algonquin Provincial Park, in Ontario, traces the path of Alice the Moose, a 700-pound cow that scientists collared and tracked in the late 1990s, proving the necessity of connected pathways for migrating wildlife.
Davis’s friends and fans call him a modern-day John Muir—with trekking poles and a knobby-tread bike. The 54-year-old was director of conservation at the environmental organization Adirondack Council, editor of Wild Earth magazine, and the focus of Born to Rewild, a documentary about his western wildway adventure. He’s also authored books, the latest, Split Rock Wildway: Scouting the Adirondack Park’s Most Diverse Wildlife Corridor, about the place he calls home.
Davis’s family land in Essex is part of Split Rock Wildway, an ecologically critical thoroughfare for Adirondack creatures that connects Lake Champlain to the High Peaks. Twenty-five years ago, when Davis climbed a hemlock on his property and first recognized that bears, bobcats, fishers and other species relied on the route to eat, mate and survive, he and conservation and recreation groups began protecting the land. Today about 7,000 acres—almost half the corridor—have been collectively conserved.
Davis’s Split Rock book highlights the creatures that rely on the wildway, from snakes and songbirds to turtles and beavers. Davis writes about them with gentle affection, outlining their ecological importance. “The thrust of the book,” he says, “is to respect and welcome our neighbors. Coexistence is as important as connectivity.”
Backcountry development and our networks of roads—most dramatically in the Adirondacks, Interstate 87—dice up wildlife pathways. We can be careful driving on warm, rainy spring nights, when frogs and salamanders are on the move. We can slow down where wild travelers pass. Still, says Davis, “the tragedy of roadkill could be ended” if our infrastructure followed the example of places like Banff National Park, in Alberta, Canada, where wildlife overpasses have proven their worth, reducing animal and motorist deaths.
There are other ways we can live harmoniously. Davis writes, “Our woods and our lives will be safer if we allow cougars and other missing predators to return.” Wolves and cougars cull deer herds, keep small mammal populations that carry the bacterium for Lyme disease in check, and eliminate overgrazing of native flora.
For now, coyotes are our region’s apex predator. “They need our protection,” says Davis. In Split Rock, he writes that killing them “doesn’t work.” Allowing wild canids to attain stable, self-regulating populations would reduce a threat to livestock or house pets. Conflicts “are most common in predator populations that are persecuted, such that the young do not have mature role models to teach them to hunt and keep clear of people.” He adds, “Hunting by humans does not mimic native carnivores.” And carnivores “bring beauty and wholeness to our wild neighborhoods in ways aesthetic, ecological, recreational, ethical and even spiritual. We will be a richer and happier people when we learn to coexist” with all our neighbors.
A version of this article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Adirondack Life. Subscribe now to receive eight issues per year.