The U.S. Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service plans to open a portion of the 993-acre John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia and Tinicum Township to allow a public bow hunt for white-tailed deer. Local officials say it would be the only legal deer hunt on public land within city borders.
The plan calls for establishing 167 acres of upland hunting grounds in three separate sections of the property, in an effort to thin the deer population. One 63-acre parcel is within Philadelphia's borders near the city's Eastwick section. The remaining 104 acres are in Tinicum Township. Both are adjacent to Darby Creek.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission supports the plan.
Wildlife officials say the hunt is necessary because the deer population far exceeds a healthy 29 animals per square mile.
"The damage caused by deer to forest regeneration on John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge is evident," the plan states.
Refuge staff say that the deer prevent oak and maple saplings from growing. As a result, invasive species are now the dominant vegetation on the refuge.
"The longer-term implications are that the refuge's native forested areas could lose the ability to replace themselves through time," the plan states.
Mariana Bergerson, deputy manager of the refuge, said officials have been considering a hunt since 2012. They run an archery program on the site to help train potential hunters. Heinz is one of the few refuges in the nation that does not allow hunting, Bergerson said.
But the refuge — on the outskirts of Philadelphia International Airport — is also popular with the general public. The plan seeks to balance the needs and safety of the general public with hunters, she said.
Heinz draws about 106,000 visitors a year. Most of those are bird watchers, hikers, other wildlife observers and photographers, who roam 10 miles of trails. Families and schoolchildren also visit the refuge, bordered on the south by 1-95. Canoers and kayakers paddle around Darby Creek and Tinicum Marsh.
Bald eagles nest at the refuge. Peregrine falcons roost and breed there.
Deer hunting was allowed before 1972, when the refuge was established as Tinicum National Environmental Center. It was renamed in 1991 for U.S. Sen. John Heinz, an heir to the food company, who died in a plane crash in Lower Merion.
As a result of the ban, the deer population has climbed. Wildlife officials had been culling deer to reduce the herd. Food banks get the meat.
Officials estimate about 12 hunters a day will show up over 10 proposed hunting days. About 25 deer would likely be killed, according to the plan. Officials expect to start the hunt this year between mid-September and January.
To keep the public safe, refuge officials would close the area during the hunts, and post notices in advance. It will establish safety zones near residential areas and establish a 500-foot "no-shooting zone" around the refuge's perimeter. And, because the surrounding area is heavily populated with a busy airport nearby, hunting with firearms will be prohibited.
Hunters would be chosen by a lottery, with a preference given to first-time youth hunters.
Barry Bessler, director of policy and compliance for the city's parks and recreation department, said the only hunting that takes place on public land in Philadelphia is handled by federal officials. He has run a deer management project since 1999. Deer are culled at Wissahickon, Pennypack, Cobbs Creek and other areas in a rifle hunt guided by federal officials who close the parks at night and kill the deer with rifles, he said.
"We don't allow any public hunting in the parks and recreation system," Bessler said.
However, Travis Lau, a spokesman with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, said it is legal to hunt with bow or firearm on private property as long as the owner gives permission. That also comes with restrictions. Firearm hunting must not be within 150 yards of an occupied building. The safety range is 50 yards with a bow. There are also safety zones around schools, playgrounds and recreational areas.
Deer hunting remains popular in Pennsylvania. The most recent buck harvest that closed in January yielded 10 percent more animals than the previous year, according to the Game Commission. That translated to 367,159 deer killed in the 2017-18 season. Bow hunters accounted for about a third of the harvest with 118,110 deer.
Officials are holding two public meetings to present the hunting plan for Heinz: 6 p.m. April 30 at Ezekiel Baptist Church, 5701 Grays Ave., and 6 p.m., May 4, Tinicum Township Municipal Building, 629 N. Governor Printz Blvd., Essington.