Refuge Night Life
by Matt Conner, Park Ranger White River NWR
Having recently transferred from an “urban refuge” in the Twin Cities, the staff at White River National Wildlife Refuge has taken the time to help reacquaint me with my small town roots and wildlife at its finest. Growing up in a small town, I have felt at home in St. Charles and the neighboring towns in the area. Spending time at the farmers market and eating outstanding food in the local restaurants has been a real treat in my re-acclimation.
One treat I did not expect was being asked to participate in a “spot-light survey” the other night on the Refuge. The biologist for the Refuge, Richard Hines, invited me to go and operate one of the lights to take a population estimate of deer, raccoons, opossum, minks, and other animals on the Refuge. At first I thought he was joking and this would be a grown up version of snipe hunting, but I decided the offer sounded too good to pass up and simply stated, “I’ll be there!”
I kept thinking this was too good to be true and when I arrived at Richard’s that evening, it got even better. Richard and his wife Pam had prepared a wonderful meal of halibut from the recent trip to Alaska and insisted I join them in thanks for me helping with the survey. After a wonderful meal, we headed out to the Refuge to begin our study.
I was positioned on a seat mounted to a platform on the back of Service pickup and was handed a spotlight. Sitting next to me was Chris Preslar, an intern working the summer at White River National Wildlife Refuge. Our task was to search the area on our side of the truck looking for eyes shinning back at us. When we spotted something, we would knock on the roof for the vehicle to stop while we determined species and recorded other characteristics. I didn’t realize at the time, but the fun I was having was part of a precise and scientific study.
Richard explained that the Refuge has six “lines” we drive and spotlight to determine deer population, doe to fawn ratio and buck to doe ratio. This information is compiled over the years to determine trends of the ratios and population. The study is done at the same time every year and each line is driven only once to limit disturbance of the animals. The Refuge also records the number of additional furbearers to determine if additional trapping is needed to control the populations of predatory animals. Spotlighting is not permitted by the public and is only used in this instance to collect scientific data.
After seeing several deer and other critters, I was getting comfortable in my role and saw what I was sure to be animal eyes shinning back at me. I pounded on the roof of the vehicle to stop and realized I was seeing reflective tacks that had been placed in trees by last year’s hunters. Richard and Chris both laughed and said I would be fined $1.00 every time I called out a false “cat eye.”
The Refuge does not allow the use of non-biodegradable flagging tape for hunters and fisherman to find their way through the woods and encourage the use of degradable paper flagging or the reflective tacks. This leaves less debris in the woods as long as users remember to remove their tacks at the end of the season.
Based on this years study, the deer population appears to similar to last seasons with an additional increase in fawn production. Squirrel and raccoon populations have increased considerably due to last falls heavy hardwood mast production. The summer populations of smaller species serve as an indicator to the previous fall food conditions. When the numbers of these species increase it is indicative of the deer populations and health. Larger species won’t see an immediate change in population based on one falls hardwood mass production, but gradual changes will occur and by recording the increase in smaller species the Refuge has an indication of the state of the resource as a whole.
We came to the end of the line and packed up the lights and equipment and I reached into my pocket to pay my many fines. Richard chuckled and said he would just start a tab. I plan to participate in many more studies on the Refuge and hope to improve by next year in my “cat eye” identification.