John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge: Oh, deer, overpopulation in the Refuge

story by Bernard Brown | photos by Christian Munold. Scenes from an early morning walk through the John Heinz National Wildlife RefugeIt’s impossible to know what actually happened, but it was easy to imagine an early morning dog walker startling a deer into a terrified sprint. We had paused to examine hoof prints where a deer trail crossed a human trail in the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. Four or five deeper strikes across a few yards seemed to indicate a burst of speed. Photographer Christian Hunold pointed out a dog paw print in the mud. The sun was just rising, overtaking a damp January mist on the morning we visited. As Gary Stolz, Refuge manager, explained when I spoke to him on the phone, “visitors who want to see deer should be there early, early in the morning or in the evening towards closing.”

Deer trails were all around us. You could be fooled into thinking these narrow paths were made by humans. Upstate in the mountains I’ve covered miles on deer trails; it’s easier than hacking my way through the underbrush. But I’ve learned to keep an eye on my compass. Deer have their own destinations, and it’s easy to follow a deer trail that deceptively meanders until you’re far off course.

At Heinz, visitors are asked to stay on the human trails to prevent wildlife harassment. “The number one purpose is to protect and restore habitat for wildlife, with visitors there in a compatible way for the wildlife,” says Stolz. Packing more than 130,000 annual visitors into 324 acres of upland habitat requires some discipline.

Luckily the deer are easy to spot from the human trails. We saw five on our half-hour walk. Most wildlife-watchers who visit the Refuge come for the birds, so I doubt many notice that it’s crowded with deer. The Refuge currently hosts about nine times what it can sustainably support, according to a 2011 draft deer management plan.

Hunold and I explored the southwest section of the Refuge off Route 420. Besides the occasional pile of deer pellets, the other indication of deer overpopulation was the blanket of dead Japanese stiltgrass covering the ground. Japanese stiltgrass is an invasive species that deer don’t like and flourishes when they eat everything else. More deer means more eating of native plants and a greater opportunity for the stiltgrass to thrive.

White-tailed deer haven’t always been so common. We hunted them to near-extinction by the beginning of the 20th century, making the current overpopulation a conservation triumph. On the other hand, it also has something to do with the local extinction of their natural non-human predators. The most effective way to bring the Refuge’s population back into balance, according to the management plan, is to remove them. Unfortunately, this means shooting the deer. This will likely be good for the rest of the Refuge’s residents, even if it is unfortunate for the deer. 

Bernard Brown is an amateur field herper, bureaucrat and founder of the PB&J Campaign (pbjcampaign.org), a movement focused on the benefits of eating lower on the food chain.