First ‘mentored deer hunt’ at Philly’s Heinz Refuge draws 30 newbies to the woods

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Markeeta Holmes, 25, of North Philadelphia, takes target practice with a mentor at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Markeeta Holmes, 25, of North Philadelphia, takes target practice with a mentor at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Pennsylvania touts the second-highest number of hunters in the nation behind Texas. But for more than a decade, the number of people buying hunting licenses has been on the decline. This week, a dozen seasoned hunters are trying to buck the trend in what may seem like an unusual recruitment area: Philadelphia.

“I’ve become interested in how can I pass it along to new folks and a more diverse group and you know, people who don’t have someone to show them,” said Pat Oelschlager who grew up hunting in Bucks County.

Oelschlager is volunteering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Pennsylvania Game Commission for the first mentored whitetail deer hunt at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum.

The eight-day hunt, which ran Wednesday through Saturday last week and will run the same days this week, is connecting experienced shots like Oelschlager with people who previously had little to no experience killing an animal.

The pitch to mentees: Hunting is important for wildlife management and sustainability.

The Heinz Refuge, for example, should ideally have no more than 30 deer per square mile, according to Mariana Bergerson, deputy manager of the refuge. Right now, it has more like 100 deer per square mile.

A doe looks up from grazing in a meadow at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum where a newly initiated bow hunting season is being used to introduce the sport of hunting to those who have never tried it. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“When you have a [deer] population that’s too large, they’re going to eat a lot of food and that has to come from the forest and that’s going to make an impact on the habitat for the other wildlife,” said Bergerson.

Large populations also make deer more susceptible to disease.

The way Bergerson and her colleagues sold the idea to the public appears to have worked. Some 80 people submitted their names in a lottery for the chance to get one of 30 mentee spots.

For 25-year-old Markeeta Holmes, it came down to having a closer connection with her food.

Markeeta Holmes draws a recurve bow during target practice at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. The refuge held a mentored deer hunt for people like Markeeta who had never hunted before. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I thought it was important to understand where my meat comes from and from a sustainability point of view, not using industrialized meat,” said Holmes, who like several others in the cohort had never picked up a crossbow before she arrived at the Heinz Refuge for training.

The group of mentees included teens, a young man who had gone hunting in the past and was looking to get back into it, and a young woman who had trapped rabbits and wanted to give deer hunting a try.

Derek Stoner, Hunter Outreach Coordinator with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, attributed the response to the call for mentees to how hard it can be to break into hunting if you live in a city. It’s one reason he wanted to mentor people in the area.

“If you simply look at the reality of numbers in our most urbanized, highly populated areas of the state, there’s way too many people and way too few places to deer hunt,” he said.

The Heinz Refuge event is the only legal deer hunt on public land within the city’s borders and it could be a while before another is scheduled. Bergerson said the refuge is waiting to see how the second week of the mentored hunt goes before staff plan another event like it.

Stoner and Bergerson acknowledge it’s unlikely the group of novice hunters will single-handedly cull the deer population at the Heinz Refuge and that’s not quite the point.

The hope is the mentees get a taste for the experience and seek additional outings outside of the city with the help of a mentor.

More than anything, the Game Commission and FWS hope the new hunters will become repeat buyers of hunting licenses, even if it means ruffling some feathers.

Hunting can draw backlash, but it pays for conservation

Markeeta Holmes and her hunting mentor A.J. Garcia check out a blind during the mentored deer hunt at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The most common feedback from mentees was how peaceful the ritual of sitting silently in a blind — a camouflage tent that’s supposed to conceal the bodies and scent of hunters — can be.

“The biggest thing so far is how close animals get when you’re that relaxed, when you’re that quiet,” said Holmes as she made her way back out to her hunting spot after eating lunch on Friday. “It feels like you’re a part of something way bigger than yourself. We had a few birds come up and rest on branches nearby. We had a squirrel come visit when they were checking on their nuts.”

There was a mixed public response when John Heinz proposed opening the refuge to hunting this year for the first time in its history, with some critics arguing that killing an animal, even for sustenance, is cruel or unnecessary. Others were upset the refuge would be temporarily closed to hikers and birders during the eight-day hunt.

Still, the Pennsylvania Game Commission manages almost 500 species of wild birds and mammals — including 20 endangered species — and says it’s a costly mission.

The sale of annual hunting licenses and a federal excise tax on firearms and archery equipment help pay for conservation in the commonwealth. A dip in sales of licenses, which cost $20.90 per year, means less money for wildlife management and habitat protection.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Data show the number of Pennsylvania hunting licenses sold dropped by almost 7% between 2004 and 2018.

Other states, such as Minnesota, have seen the number of license holders plummet by more than 100,000 over the same period of time.

Baby boomers are starting to retire from hunting, according to Stoner, but they only account for a portion of the drop in license sales.

Stoner attributed the decades-long dip in participation rates in the U.S., in large part, to changing demographics.

“The traditional pattern is that someone gets introduced to these new activities when they’re a kid and then they’re going to be a lifelong participant,” he said. “With more people living in suburbanized, urbanized areas … what we’re seeing is the ‘adult onset hunter.’”

Location is only one barrier to hunting.

Markeeta Holmes and her mentor A.J. Garcia settle into a deer blind at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

It also requires knowledge of local and state laws, deer biology, tracking, and hunting ethics. It’s also gear-heavy and knowing what to buy comes with its own challenges.

The blind meant to hide Elena Korboukh from the deer she hoped to harvest last Friday afternoon can run at least $50.

The crossbow she used can cost at least $500, depending on where you shop.

The mentored hunt aimed to take care of all those issues.

Staff and volunteers taught Korboukh and her fellow mentees a “field-to-table” approach to hunting during a training session the weekend before the hunt began. Instructors taught her it’s best to shoot a deer in its heart or lungs because it saves them a long death, not to take selfies because it’s disrespectful to the animal, and how to season and cook venison.

Hunting mentor Todd Holmes (center left) shows Elena Korboukh (center right) how to field dress a deer, neatly removing internal organs from the body cavity. Korboukh, 44, of South Philadelphia, bagged her first deer during the mentored bow hunt held at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The John Heinz refuge also afforded her several opportunities to practice her crossbow skills before sending her to her first hunt last week, where she shot a deer.

“It was presented to me on a silver platter with all the help and support I could get, so why not?” said Korboukh, 44, who lives in South Philadelphia.

Korboukh’s mentor also walked her through the process of dressing, or removing her kill’s internal organs.

“Would I go out on a multi-day hunting trip? Probably not,” she said halfway into her hunt.

Still, Korboukh said she’d go out with a mentor again. So did Holmes, even after several hours of sitting in a blind with no clear shot of a doe or buck.

Elena Korboukh and her hunting mentor, Todd Holmes pose with the deer she shot at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. The mentored hunt at the refuge aims to educate a new generation of hunters as well as cull the herd. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“It was actually really great because we got to watch a doe come up really close and these animals are just really beautiful,” she said. “So the chance to see a deer up that close was reward enough.”

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