Sunday, September 6, 2015

Western PA Area's Only National Wildlife Refuge Offers Many Opportunities

By Bob Frye    
Maybe it's the somewhat deceptive name.
There are three national wildlife refuges in Pennsylvania, but only one lies west of the Susquehanna River. The other two are so far east as to be closer to New Jersey than Harrisburg.
Yet the “local” one — 56 years old, encompassing 8,815 acres, and open from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset, every day — draws just 40,000 or so visitors a year. 
“We offer quite a bit of outdoor recreational opportunities and do get people. But we could always handle more. We don't get overcrowded by any means,” said Vicki Muller, manager of Erie National Wildlife Refuge.
Maybe people are looking for it in the wrong place. 
The Erie National Wildlife Refuge isn't in Erie County or even in the Lake Erie watershed. It actually sits in Crawford County, about a dozen miles west of Meadville. 
“It's named for the Erie people, the Native Americans who used to populate the area,” Muller said.
Those who discover it will find plenty to do.
“If you like wildlife, if you like to be out in nature, it's a good place to be,” said Doug Copeland of Guys Mills, president of Friends of Erie National Wildlife Refuge, a volunteer group working on the refuge. 
The refuge is broken up into two: the Seneca Division, at 3,609 acres, lies just north of the Sugar Lake Division, at 5,206 acres. There's fishing to be had in both.
In the Seneca portion, anglers can target all of the refuge's creeks and beaver ponds. Muddy Creek is perhaps the best of the lot. It's stocked with trout in portions of its upper reaches and holds smallmouth bass, muskies and walleyes downstream, said Brian Ensign, a Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission biologist.
“It's a little cooler water with a little more gradient there. It's a good-size stream and goes for miles through the refuge,” Ensign said.
There are eight waters — a mix of ponds and streams — open to fishing in the Sugar Lake section. The angling is not always easy. Most of the ponds are shallow, topping out at less than 10 feet deep, and some get so weed-covered in summer that they look more like marshy fields than anything. 
“But some of the impoundments do have some good-sized fish,” said Betsy Trometer, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who helped survey them last summer.
The species present include black crappies, bluegills, bullhead catfish, pumpkinseeds, largemouth bass and chain pickerel, she said.
At least one refuge stream has wild brook trout, too, though Trometer wouldn't identify it.
The refuge also is open across most of its acres to hunting, albeit with restrictions. Bear hunting is prohibited, and in other places — the refuge is managed in “areas” — there are rules about how and when hunters can do their thing. Sportsmen also must get and carry a free permit. 
But white-tailed deer, turkeys, small game, upland birds like grouse and the occasional pheasant and waterfowl can be had, along with various furbearers. Some realize that potential, Muller said.
“Actually, most of our visitation is through hunting. We have a very good hunting program here,” she said. 
Copeland is among those who take advantage of it. He's primarily an archery deer and turkey hunter and said he's enjoyed good success, killing a whitetail just about every year. Two years ago, he took a 10-point with an 18-inch spread. 
“It wasn't even. It had six on one side and four on the other. But it was sort of a decent deer,” he said.
The refuge also offers good hiking.
“Besides hunting, that's probably responsible for the second highest amount of visitation we get here,” Muller said.
There are five official trails ranging in length from roughly one to three miles. They wind through a mix of habitats, from fields of goldenrod and wildflowers to hemlock forests. Others pass through some of the refuge's many wetlands. Sixty percent of the refuge is classified as that habitat type.
“We have a lot of water on the refuge. There's a lot of wet here,” Muller said.
Two trails, one in each division, are wheelchair accessible. Two others have observation decks — the one off Deer Run Trail is especially nice, with benches and spotting scopes under roof — offering the chance to glimpse bald eagles, herons and other birds.
The refuge has been known to host 230 species, at least seasonally, and rates as an Important Bird Area, according to the National Audubon Society.
“We get a lot of migratory birds. Anything that migrates through (here) likes to stop for at least a while on its way,” said Linda Anderson, a board member with the Friends group.
“A lot of the people who come to use our trails really enjoy that, the birding.”
Most are locals, though, she said. The refuge could stand more visitors from across a wider swath of the region, she said.
“It's a fabulous entity that we all pay for with our taxes, so we'd like to see more people use it,” Muller agreed.
“The main reason I go there is because it's just such a beautiful place,” Copeland added. “You try to get the word out.” 
If you go: Erie wildlife refuge center
Information about the Erie National Wildlife Refuge is available at and by calling 814-789-3585.
It might be wise — and fun — to start any visit with a trip to the refuge visitor center. Located at 11296 Wood Duck Lane in Guys Mills, it has maps and other information as well as opportunities for children, such as the chance to earn explorer, birding and caching patches.
Almost done inside the center is a mural being painted by an art student from Edinboro that depicts the scenery and wildlife of the refuge.
The center is open from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday, but the refuge staff is small — just four employees — so manager Vicki Muller recommends calling before visiting to make sure someone's on hand.
The Friends of Erie National Wildlife Refuge also sponsors special activities at times.
An owl prowl that will feature a lecture, hands-on demonstrations and a walk to look and listen for owls is set for Oct. 31, for example. Details on that event and more — including information on how to become a volunteer — are at
Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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