The young boy practically jumps out of the car. “Don’t forget the arrows!” he shouts to his dad as he races to the gate.
It is still dark at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) at Tinicum. Gold and red leaves cover the meadow, the cold air sweeps away the last of summer, and the birds are so melodic you feel guilty talking over them. As an SCA Intern, it is the kind of morning that makes you happy you work outside.
This is to be the first mentored archery deer hunt at the Philadelphia based refuge. After 47 years as America’s First Urban Refuge, John Heinz NWR is opening its doors to a new group of conservationists. The goal of the hunt is simple: to introduce community members to one of the six major, wildlife-dependent activities in the National Wildlife Refuge System and to reduce the herd of native, though overpopulated, white-tailed deer.
Unlike the boy who nearly fell out of the car, not everyone is as eager to welcome hunting to Philadelphia. Despite public meetings, more than three years of planning, and an in-depth orientation training for hunters, public reaction has been mixed. Some disagree with the timing of the hunt, some with the methods, and for others, it’s the act of hunting itself. But for supporters, who made up the majority of the crowd at the initial hearings, they are excited to see the result. Not only will the hunt diversify the refuge community, it has the potential to benefit all refuge visitors.
SCA Intern Kayla Smith learns how to use a crossbow with Derek Stoner of the PA Game Commission. Crossbows increase accuracy compared to traditional bows, and will be used for the hunt. Photo: Miles Radin
Among the most frequent guests at John Heinz NWR are bird watchers. They are also among its greatest supporters — their legacy is intertwined with the story of conservation here. The refuge is an Important Bird Area as designated by the National Audubon Society, and hosts a staggering diversity of nesting and visiting birds. It is possible that a reduction in deer on this refuge could help boost the population of birds.
By most counts, over three-hundred species of birds have called this place home. Among them is the Brown Thrasher, a small yet agile songbird with a reddish back and a speckled chest. It’s the kind of bird that spends all day in the underbrush, jumping around from twig to twig — the kind you don’t know is there until it flies away. It sings over 1,000 different songs – the most of any bird. Although not a prized bird to see on a bird walk, it would excite most birders. That is, if they can find one.
As shrub birds, Brown Thrashers live and eat among the understory of the forest, the same space that White-tailed deer live. Over the past hundred years, deer have dramatically increased in numbers. We removed their predators (wolves, mountain lions, and bears), and developed most of the country; creating “fringe” habitat that they thrive in. Most estimates put the US deer population at 30 million – about a thousand times larger than it was in 1930.
This high density of deer is evident in places like the John Heinz NWR (and likely your backyard), and may affect the threatened Brown Thrasher. It is just one of the many reasons that refuge staff decided to organize the hunt. Additionally, they hoped to engage the local community in an important part of the American conservation story, and it worked. Each new hunter I met told a similar story; without this local hunt, they would not have never had the opportunity to try. By offering this to the community, they provide an avenue to a new passion for potential environmentalists, and continue the hunting legacy that is waning in most urban areas.
The boy who arrived that morning did shoot a deer, a 130-pound doe. His story was wonderfully described in a Philadelphia Magazine article. His mentor called it “a perfect shot.” As he left the refuge, the boy told the few that were gathered that he could not wait to return next year. In that moment, he summarized the whole point of the hunt: connecting people to nature who will become lifelong stewards. In a way, it’s the same reason I joined the Student Conservation Association.