On Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles, officials are backing a plan to eliminate the island’s mule deer herd by shooting them from helicopters.
The Catalina Island Conservancy–the nonprofit that manages 90% of the island–says that the introduced mule deer population has grown well beyond the island’s capacity to sustain. By overbrowsing and trampling native plants, the deer are destroying the island’s ecosystem and threatening native species like the Santa Catalina Island fox, Catalina California ground squirrel, and California quail. Overbrowsing is also causing soil erosion, which can negatively impact aquatic habitats and species.
“The island and the deer are both fighting for survival, and neither one is winning,” Whitney Latorre, chief executive of the Catalina Island Conservancy, told the Los Angeles Times.
To deal with this growing problem, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is backing a management plan that involves culling much of the 1800-deer herd. Hunting is legal on the island with the proper tags, but this hasn’t been enough to stop population growth. So, the Conservancy and the Department of Fish and Wildlife are planning to work with a private management contractor to eliminate as much of the herd as possible.
The Times reports that the nonprofit White Buffalo Inc. will begin shooting the deer next fall. Hunters will use AR-15 style rifles with non-lead bullets, and the hunted deer will be left where they lay.
As you can imagine, some of the island’s residents aren’t too happy. An online petition has been circulating trying to put a stop to the “slaughter” of the animals. “They’re not killing their deer,” the petition reads. “They’re killing your deer.”
The petition says that older generations of people on the island still rely on the deer for food, and that eliminating all the deer isn’t necessary. They say the Conservancy and the state haven’t done enough to increase hunting on the island, and these groups have failed to engage with residents or given them alternatives.
The Humane Society has also gotten in on the action. Dianne Stone, a member of the Catalina Island Humane Society, said in a recent editorial that the deer have been on the island for over 100 years and “their gentle presence is an integral part of our island’s natural appeal.” She calls for non-lethal solutions like immunocontraceptives but is also open to allowing “ethical and responsible deer hunters” to balance the population.
A 2022 report authored by biologists at the Conservancy and California State University, however, argues that the deer cannot be controlled under the current hunting regulations. While the hunting program allows 300-400 deer to be harvested per year, hunters only take about 244 deer each season. This, researchers say, isn’t enough to reduce the population to acceptable levels.
What’s more, the deer that are taken tend to be older males. Most of the hunting is done by guided non-residents, who prefer large bucks rather than does.
“The costs associated with guided hunts, the challenge of convincing these hunters to focus their efforts on does… and the logistical constraints imposed by the island’s inaccessible terrain and need to ferry gear to and from the island, it is not clear that public hunting will ever be sufficient to control the deer population,” researchers say.
Opponents of the hunt respond that the Conservancy should have done more to solve these barriers to successful hunts.
“Is there any evidence that they tried to solve these problems?” the petition reads. “These are not issues that don’t have solutions. They didn’t try to solve these problems because they didn’t want to solve these problems. If it’s ‘impossible’ to control the deer to an acceptable percentage how is it suddenly possible to slaughter them all. This defies common logic.”
There may be too many mule deer on Catalina Island, but the population on the California mainland may be headed in the opposite direction. A new report from the Road Ecology Center at UC Davis notes that the number of mule deer-vehicle collisions decreased about 10% per year between 2016 and 2022.
This may be good for Golden State drivers, but it’s not a great sign for the mule deer population as a whole. The report notes that vehicle collisions can indicate population trends, especially if there aren’t big changes to traffic or wildlife movement.
Sure enough, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has also reported a statewide decline of about 1% per year in mule deer populations over the 26 years preceding 2016. The report concludes, “in one to two decades, statewide mule deer may be reduced to the low hundreds of thousands, jeopardizing human enjoyment of this common keystone animal and important carnivore food sources.”
While a spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife told the L.A. Times that they are “supportive of the habitat restoration project,” the agency has not given final approval for the deer cull. The Conservancy says the earliest it will happen is late 2024.
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