Easing human-wildlife friction as backcountry critters move to town


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A fat crabapple stump squats on a Leetsdale front lawn, tapered to a chiseled point. Some might see it as an eyesore. To Gary Fujak, it's a sign of the growing prominence of wildlife in city dwellers' lives.

A beaver had clambered out of Big Sewickley Creek early one morning and gnawed down the crabapple, just as beavers chomp alder and willow across the Canadian wilds. The homeowner wasn't pleased, which is how Fujak learned about the stump. A big part of his job is to respond to urban folks' wildlife run-ins. Fujak is the Pennsylvania Game Commission's wildlife conservation officer in western Allegheny County, a 247-square mile wedge of hilly suburb and sprawl stretching from The Point to Findlay. His turf is home to a half-million humans and surging animal populations once thought to require wilder habitats.

Over the 13 years Fujak has patrolled that beat he's seen a surprising shift toward the kind of incidents fellow officers deal with in places like Potter County -- the heart of the state's northcentral mountains.

"Someone's got to be a wildlife officer in Pittsburgh and I like it here," Fujak said. "It's not the big woods where most officers want to be assigned, but these days we do the same things [as rural officers] like trap bears and monitor eagle nests in different surroundings. This is my world."

As Fujak says, beavers aren't the only wild denizen exploiting an urban frontier. From May 2012 to June 2013, Allegheny County's three Game Commission officers (Fujak, Dan Puhala and Beth Fife) responded to 37 calls about bears, five coyote complaints, 17 wild turkey incidents, one report of a bobcat and 600 reports and complaints about road-killed, sick, injured or garden- or landscape-munching deer.

That's only the logged reports. Fujak tells of encounters he's happened upon and those he was told about by people whose wildlife knowledge he trusts.

"A trapper caught a river otter by accident at Washington Landing," Fujak said. "I know of a barn owl on the North Side, and there are eight peregrine falcon nests in Allegheny County -- all of them on man-made structures that substitute for cliffs the birds nest on in wilderness."

During a routine call at a Leetsdale residence, Elaine Macurak wonders what's happening with all the wildlife in her backyard.

"It's amazing to me," she said. "Lately we see beavers almost every day. Where did they come from?"

Fujak explained that beavers once lived all over the region and now, lured by cleaner rivers and urban green spaces, they're adapting to town and coming back.

"When I first visited the homeowner who lost that crabapple, we looked into the creek and saw a beaver eating Japanese knotweed [an invasive plant that dominates stream banks]," Fujak said. "I wouldn't have believed beavers would eat that stuff, but it shows how wildlife adapts to a landscape in transition."

The appearance of big, "wilderness" wildlife in urban neighborhoods is not so much invasion as reclamation. All these species originally inhabited the region but disappeared with the native forests, felled mostly for farming. But a gradual reversal has happened, difficult to detect day-to-day yet clear over time.

According to U.S. Forest Service statistics, between 1910 and 1959, 44 million acres of farmland reverted to forest across the eastern United States, a trend that continues here. In 1960, when sheep pastures dominated rural southwestern Pennsylvania, Greene County, for example, was 19 percent forested. Today, woodland covers almost 60 percent of Greene's surface.

Meanwhile, humans continue to encroach on forest and remaining farmland. U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service data shows that about 300 acres of rural land is converted to commercial, industrial or residential uses in Pennsylvania every day.

So, the once crisp border between urban and wild is blurring, putting humans and wildlife into contact.

Yvonne Pilarski of Collier never thought that contact would come from bears.

Perched on a quiet knoll studded with oaks and hemlocks, Pilarski's home could be in Elk County or the Laurel Highlands, but instead it stands about three miles southwest of Pittsburgh's city limits.

"About 10:30 one night we heard a tree knocked over and something big moving in the brush," Pilarski said. "I called the police and they told us there was a bear in the area. My neighbor's been here 23 years and he's never seen a bear here before."

Fujak told her there's not much he can do unless a bear takes up residence in one place for a while.

"If I have to trap and move a bear, it's more for the bear's safety than for people," Fujak said. "Black bears just aren't aggressive as long as you respect their space. Most of the time they disappear and we never see them again."

Pilarski wasn't alarmed.

"I liked knowing it was around and I hope nothing happens to it," she said. "You'd have more bad stuff going on if bears were really a threat."

Pilarski said Collier's newly arrived coyotes also make life interesting.

"When we had that big red moon you could hear [coyotes] move up the valley, howling and yipping," she said. "It was such an experience to stand on your porch in Pittsburgh and hear that."

Fujak doesn't always encounter such tolerance.

"Most of my calls are from people who fear or don't understand wildlife," he said. "I met with residents recently who wanted me to kill a red fox because they feared for the safety of their house cat they let prowl loose and kill native birds. I don't comprehend that thinking."

Sometimes Fujak can solve residents' wildlife problems for good, like the time two jake turkeys were harassing Erma Ritter of Ross.

"I couldn't go out in my backyard," Ritter said. "The minute I came out they flew at me and beat me with their wings. I was scared to death."

Fujak visited Ross' home several times, then caught both turkeys with their heads lined up beyond the bead sight of his Commission-issued 12-gauge, which barked once in the suburban stillness.

"My life changed the day Gary fixed my problem," Ritter said. "He gave me back my home."

Except for Fujak, maybe no other area resident has witnessed Pittsburgh's changing wildlife quite like Jim Brzoska of Gibsonia.

"We were fishing down here [at the Leetsdale access] when this osprey swooped down and caught a fish so big it had a hard time handling it," Brzoska said. "Then a bald eagle came from upriver and tried to take the fish."

The fish was dropped and a battle ensued until the osprey chased the eagle away.

"They were fighting in mid-air for about 10 minutes," said Brzoska. "It's great to see something like that. This is nature at its best down here, without leaving home."

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