National wildlife refuges support the management of wildlife. During the winter months, the refuges sometimes close for wildlife management. To learn more about why managing wildlife is important, read the article below.
2012 Occoquan Bay and Mason Neck NWR Deer Management Hunts
2012 Occoquan Bay NWR Novice Youth Deer Hunt and Workshop
December 2007. Written by Matt Iden
(Information in this article contributed by Greg Weiler, Daffny Jones Hoskie, and Larry Underwood)
When many people think of a National Wildlife Refuge, they envision a peaceful sanctuary for birds, animals, and fish, a kind of wilderness park where wildlife can exist safe from harm.
For the most part this is true, but refuges are also delicate eco-systems that require balancing the needs of a diverse group of animals and plants in a limited space. It is the responsibility of the NWR staff to observe the interaction of these different animals and step in when necessary. If a species begins to dwindle, measures may have to be taken to increase its numbers. Or if a particular species becomes so abundant or its behavior so damaging that it threatens the well-being of the other species (or its own) in the refuge its numbers may have to be curtailed.
"With tight restrictions on hunting, a lack of natural predators, and an ability to adapt to urban environments, the deer population has soared throughout northern Virginia in the last fifteen years."
Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck NWR and Occoquan Bay NWR are no exceptions to this rule, where managing the white-tailed deer population is a constant challenge. With tight restrictions on hunting, a lack of natural predators, and an ability to adapt to urban environments, the deer population has soared throughout northern Virginia in the last fifteen years. Our refuges are natural, safe havens for the deer, resulting in overpopulation.
The consequences? Malnourished deer, a damaged habitat for all animals, and a refuge in decline as these eco-systems are unable to support the strain of the herds’ swelling numbers.
To combat the overpopulation, the NWR staff attempt to reduce the number of deer through carefully controlled hunting, called management hunts. Although distasteful to some who consider the refuges a sanctuary for the deer, the culling is necessary to safeguard the refuge and is undertaken only after a thorough environmental assessment.
The Environmental Assessment (EA) for White-tailed deer management on Occoquan Bay was done in 2002 and amended in 2007. The deer population was analyzed, as well as the herd’s overall health and its impact on the habitat. The assessment found that the maximum target population should be 75, half of its current count yet still twice the normal density of deer on a property of the refuge’s size. Non-lethal methods were considered, but were discarded as not possible on a free-ranging herd.
A management hunt was the option chosen by the refuge. This option meets the deer management objectives while providing an opportunity for public participation in hunting, one of the six priority public uses on refuges (along with wildlife observation, wildlife photography, environmental education and interpretation, and fishing).
A hunt is a carefully controlled event, with NWR staff taking into account the size of area to be hunted, type of land use adjacent to the refuge, conflicts with other refuge uses, staff time and resources, whether or not the refuge needs to be closed during the hunt, and method of take (shotgun, bow, rifle, or a combination. Our refuges are shotgun-only hunts).
"Hunters apply in advance to participate, are assigned to specific sites, have to qualify with their gun, and must attend an orientation before being allowed to hunt on the refuge. The hunts are re-evaluated each year to ensure the hunts reach intended goals."
Since the objective is to reduce the deer population to manageable levels, doe and non-antlered deer are the target of the hunt, not bucks, so the management hunt is not a “trophy” hunt. In addition, animals that might at other times be considered game (such as turkeys) are not allowed to be taken.
Biologists from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries also work with the NWR staff to determine the number of deer taken and conduct health assessments on harvested animals. Hunters apply in advance to participate, are assigned to specific sites, have to qualify with their gun, and must attend an orientation before being allowed to hunt on the refuge. The hunts are re-evaluated each year to ensure the hunts reach intended goals.
Successful hunts -- conducted in a responsible manner with careful monitoring and study -- mean fewer hunts will be required as the herd reaches a more manageable population. A smaller herd means a healthier herd and an improved habitat for all animals and plants on the NWR refuge.
Last updated: July 18, 2012