Wild turkey image via David Slater / Flickr.

In the many “Most Livable Cities” lists that Pittsburgh routinely tops, our city is consistently singled out for easy access to nature via our parks, rivers and expanding network of trails.

That means urban encounters with whitetail deer, turkeys and geese are a fact of life in many of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods. For many residents, these animals are a plus, adding charm and natural beauty to their communities. For others, they are the frustrating source of ruined gardens and traffic accidents.

These conflicts “are inevitable to some degree in the Pittsburgh area,” says Mary Jo Casalena, a turkey biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

As we move into the season of celebrating holidays — and hunting — we here at NEXTpittsburgh reached out to experts like Casalena to learn more about how local officials manage this occasionally fraught relationship between man and beast.

We do need these animals: Healthy populations of medium-sized animals like deer and turkey are actually key to the state’s biodiversity and larger environmental health. Both serve as a critical link in the food chain between plants and larger carnivores like the black bear. In a balanced ecosystem, they also play a key role in controlling the population of plants and smaller critters.

And yet we nearly lost them.

Casalena explains that massive loss of forest habitats to logging operations and unregulated hunting in the early decades of the 20th century brought many of the state’s iconic animals to the brink of extinction.

By the early 1920s, there were around 3,000 wild turkeys left in Pennsylvania. In every other Northeastern state, their populations had been wiped out. Over the next several decades, as more advanced notions of ecology and conservation became widespread, habitats were restored and populations of wild turkey and whitetail deer began to rise.

The restoration was so successful that the PA Game Commission ran a program from 2003 to 2010 to trap excess turkeys and ship them to other states looking to bolster their populations.

Early Pennsylvanian Benjamin Franklin would have been pleased: He so respected the turkey that he proposed it be the national bird instead of the bald eagle. “The turkey is a much more respectable bird,” said Franklin, “and withal a true original Native of America.”

In the majority of the state, excess populations are now managed at no cost to taxpayers by hobbyist hunters.

“The licensed hunter is the best method of population control we have,” says State Game Warden Doug Bergman, who is based in Western Pennsylvania. Hunting seasons depend on both the type of animal and type of weapon used (details here).

Allegheny County’s deer hunting season for hunters with firearms begins today. For archers, it temporarily ended yesterday and reopens on Dec. 26.

But Bergman is quick to point out that encouraging lawful, licensed hunting is not feasible in densely populated areas like Pittsburgh and its outlying suburbs. As such, the ecosystem of many communities in and around the city is becoming increasingly unbalanced.

While nuisance broods of turkeys and wild geese will at least move on from a given area after several weeks, Casanela says whitetail deer have become a year-round problem.

A turkey seen in Mt. Lebanon on November 22, 2018. Photo by Jennifer Baron.

A lack of hunting and natural predators have created several generations of deer who live in and around suburbs and have grown accustomed to human neighbors, she says: “They’re not afraid of people. It’s quite a challenge.”

Beyond hassling homeowners, environmental experts warn that these runaway deer populations are having ruinous consequences on the environment, as expanding populations eat sapling trees and other vegetation that songbirds and other small critters depend on.

While the county is in charge of a mostly volunteer unit of archers who manage deer in county parks, most smaller boroughs and municipalities simply don’t have the budget to fund more advanced wildlife management programs. Those that do have often been met with fierce resistance from community groups who dislike both the cost and the use of deadly weapons so close to their homes.

In Mt. Lebanon, the township’s three-year-old efforts to control its deer populations via a private team of archers and sharpshooters have been a consistent source of controversy, with some residents displaying signs reading “not in my yard” and others gladly volunteering to have the hunters come onto their property.

“You’re going to have emotional arguments on both sides,” says Bergman.

Casalena is no stranger to the chaos that wild animals can reap in an urban setting. Over the course of her career, she’s had to rescue a turkey from the top of a billboard in Downtown Pittsburgh and corner another in a hospital in Chambersburg.

She says the best short-term remedy is for city and suburb dwellers to be mindful of the kind of food they’re leaving outside of their homes, whether it’s in birdhouses or in loose garbage bags. “Most of the time,” she says, “people are feeding them.”

Beyond that, Casalena encourages all Pennsylvanians to see our local fauna less as a problem and more as an asset to be carefully managed.

“We should treasure and understand our wildlife resources,” Casanela said, adding later, “I love to hear the gobbles of a mature bird in the springtime.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.