Park’s Plan to Shoot Deer Has Critics Up in Arms

Times Staff Writer

Nibbling placidly at the edge of a verdant meadow, the dappled brown and ghostly white deer with outsized, moose-like antlers are so popular they rival the spectacular bluffs and coastal valleys as a tourist draw.

But the National Park Service says the estimated 1,100 fallow deer, native to the Mediterranean and Asia Minor, and their exotic brethren the spotted axis deer, originally from India and Sri Lanka, are unwelcome pests that must be eradicated to protect Point Reyes’ herd of native blacktail deer and tule elk.

The voracious deer are consuming so much forage, officials say, that they threaten to eventually starve the native animals.

A park service draft plan calls for hiring sharpshooters to kill male and female deer and using an experimental contraceptive drug on some females. Officials say they expect to eliminate all the fallow and axis deer by 2020.

The plan, expected to be finalized in coming weeks, has outraged some. Opponents are circulating petitions and picketing the park, and they have enlisted one of the world’s foremost wild animal advocates -- British primatologist Jane Goodall -- to their cause. In a letter last year to Point Reyes Supt. Don Neubacher, Goodall opposed the lethal removal of the deer.


But if left unchecked, park service officials say, the deer will soon overrun the national seashore and expand into other parts of Marin County and beyond.

The name “fallow” is misleading. The imported deer are such prodigious breeders that they can double their population every three years, wildlife managers say. And biologists here report that they have discovered 4-month-old axis deer fawns pregnant.

Officials also say the deer carry Johne’s disease, an intestinal disorder potentially fatal to native deer and elk.

Male fallow deer establish areas known as leks during mating season, using their hoofs and antlers to clear large areas of vegetation. When regrowth occurs, nonnative species often take the place of native plants, biologists say. More than a hundred leks have been counted in the Bear Valley region of the park.

The deer are prodigious eaters -- the two nonnative species consume more than one ton of forage a day and out-compete native animals for food. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey estimate that the blacktail deer herd has decreased by about half since the seashore was established in 1962.

Some opponents of the eradication plan acknowledge that the growing numbers of imported deer are causing problems but say that the park service proposal is too extreme.

“The populations are obviously growing, definitely to the point that anyone with any sense knows we can’t allow them to grow exponentially,” said Trinka Marris, who heads a local group opposing the plan. “Where we part ways is the method to deal with it. We think they should be managed, not shot. The deer have been here longer than the park. So a lot of residents in west Marin are quite attached to them. It’s the main focal point for visitors, to see the deer.”

Fallow and axis deer freely roamed the headlands here when the park service purchased a former cattle ranch and established the 71,000-acre national seashore. The agency inherited the exotic deer, descendants of San Francisco Zoo animals brought in by the former landowner in the 1940s for hunting.

Without hunting and a large predator base, the exotic breeds are now so well established that they are easier to spot than the native deer and elk. Visitors often marvel at the large, fuzzy antlers of male fallow deer.

On a recent day, a group of hikers in Bear Valley stopped to gawk at a small herd of fallow deer lounging at Divide Meadow. The hikers were surprised to hear of the park service’s plans for the animals, which they said should be granted an eviction exemption based on their loveliness.

“I have been taken by these magnificent, beautiful animals,” said Richard Kirschman, who lives near Point Reyes and opposes the eradication plan. “When I see a big white deer come out of the fog, they look like a unicorn.”

Park service officials say their first responsibility is to protect and maintain the habitat of native plants and animals. Such ecosystems are disappearing across the West as a result of fire, road building, livestock grazing, oil and gas drilling and new development.

All federal land management agencies have programs to eradicate nonnative plants and animals. The park service in California is killing feral pigs in the Channel Islands, and the Bureau of Land Management is struggling to stem the growth of water-guzzling tamarisk plants in the Mojave Desert. The challenge to effective management arises, as it has at Point Reyes, when eradication involves killing wild animals to which the public has grown attached.

This is the second time the park service has culled animals at Point Reyes. For almost two decades beginning in 1976, hunters hired by the park service shot and killed 2,700 deer, according to John Dell’Osso, Point Reyes’ spokesman. Public outrage forced officials to end the program in 1994.

“Of course there’s emotion wrapped up in it, and no one wants to hurt animals, whether it’s native or nonnative. It’s terribly wrenching to people,” said Gordon Bennett, chairman of the Marin County chapter of the Sierra Club, which supports the park service. “We have nothing against the deer, it’s just that they belong in zoos and private refuges, not on land that is supported by the taxpayers.”

But local opponents say they have established a sound scientific case for retaining the exotic deer and have collected statements from prominent elk and deer experts concluding, among other things, that there is no compelling evidence that the population explosion the park service anticipates will actually happen.

“We are a concerned, well-educated group of people, who, I suppose, once in a while go too far,” Kirschman said. “When I found out that the park’s plan was to exterminate them, I was quite horrified. I understand that wild animals need their population managed. But this is something else. I’m reaching for anything I can. I’m trying to throw a monkey wrench in their plans.”

In the view of park service biologist Natalie Gates, the public debate has become too emotional. The admittedly grisly prospect of a deer slaughter has blinded people to the necessity of stemming an ecosystem collapse, she says.

“It’s a difficult situation, but it’s not a difficult ethical decision, not at all,” she said. “We are talking about an entire ecosystem. We are losing animals left and right now. It’s not about the elk. We’re talking about fawns dying from starvation, destroying plants and damaging water systems. If we were in any other part of the country this wouldn’t be a problem. We are west Marin County. You can’t make scientific decisions with emotion. That’s how bad decisions are made.”