Point Reyes Light - February 10, 2005

National Seashore wants rid of 'un-American deer' 

 By Jim Kravets

Point Reyes National Seashore Supt. Don Neubacher this past week announced the park would like to manage its growing herds of non-native axis and fallow deer by getting rid of all of them in the next 15 years, using bullets and contraception.

The National Seashore, which used to cull the herds annually to limit each to 350 deer, stopped in 1995 when Neubacher became superintendent. Since then the total number of axis and fallow have grown to more than 1,000.

Neubacher’s "preferred" method of dealing with the extra 400 deer by eliminating both herds is among five alternatives listed by the Park Service in a 296-page draft of its non-native-deer-management plan and environmental-impact statement.

The tome was completed in December and made available to the public last week.

Although glimpses of the axis – and particularly – fallow deer are often treasured by park visitors, ranchers have complained the deer compete with their cows for grass and damage their fences. In addition, some park staff and wilderness advocates says the axis and fallow herds also compete for forage with the park’s native blacktail deer and re-introduced tule elk.

The park’s proposed deer-management plan asserts that the National Seashore has five options:

• Alternative A. Leave the fallow and axis deer alone and let them extend their range.

• Alternative B. Limit both herds to 350 deer each. Those maximums are part of a management policy the park adopted in 1976.

• Alternative C. Limit both herds to 350 each by shooting some and giving others long-acting contraceptives.

• Alternative D. Eliminate both herds in the next 15 years by shooting all their members.

• Alternative E (which the park prefers). Eradicate both species in the next 15 years by shooting some and giving long-acting contraceptives to others.

The report purports to have considered public opinion expressed during a public-comment period two years ago when the now-eradicated Citizens Advisory Commission to the GGNRA and National Seashore helped establish policies in the two federal parks.

First authorized by Congress in 1972 to watchdog park affairs for 30 years, the commission expired at the end of 2002, and the Bush Administration declined to resurrect it.

That the fate of the non-native deer seems to be at the will of the Park Service renews public unhappiness about the loss of citizen oversight of the local Park Service.

However, "the five alternatives are not set in stone," said park Chief of Interpretation and Interim Supt. John Dell’Osso. "This is a preliminary document," he told The Light. "We want public comment. We’re definitely open to other options."

The public will be able to see the plan and comment on it until April 8. Then, Dell’Osso said, the draft plan will be reviewed and revised in light of the comments. The final deer-management plan will be finished by the end of the year, he said.

How the deer got here

Half a century ago, the San Francisco Zoo donated 29 fallow and eight axis deer to Millard ("Doc") Ottinger, who created a hunting club on his ranch at the foot of Mount Vision.

With the creation of the National Seashore in 1965, hunting stopped and the fallow herd grew to 523 deer in the next 12 years. The number of axis deer grew to 461.

By killing deer for research purposes, as well as by increasing the number of deer culled, the Park Service until 1994 kept their numbers in check. During that period rangers killed 1,388 axis deer and 1,873 fallow deer.

However, the culling stopped when Neubacher became superintendent in 1995. While the Park Service estimates there are only 250 axis in the park (they’re easy to shoot because they stick together in open land), it estimates that since culling was suspended, the number of fallow deer (which are harder to shoot because they spread out in forests) has ballooned to 860.

Park claims urgency

That number is unacceptable, Dell’Osso said. "The timing is critical for us now. In some areas the animal density is 80 deer per square kilometer. That’s an unnatural density for local deer which would never exist in those concentrations.

"The land out here cannot support those kind of densities. At that level the deer can cause damage to [stream-side] areas and water quality."

The report said loss of riparian habitat can affect a number of species at the National Seashore, including protected species like coho salmon.

Dell’Osso said the non-native deer "tear down ranchers’ fencing and eat the forage left out for livestock. Some Point Reyes ranchers spend up to $4,000 each year to repair damage from the deer."

Fighting invasive species costs 70 percent more than US wars

Dell’Osso said the battle against non-native plants and animals is global and cited a four-year-old study that estimated the US spends $137 billion a year to control invasive species. To put that number in perspective, the US plans to spend a total of only $81 billion for all military, relief, and rebuilding activities in Iraq and Afghanistan this year.

Based on their growth rates, Dell’Osso said, the fallow deer population would double in six years, and the axis population would double in four years. Timely action is necessary to head-off the deer’s spread to lands outside the park, he said.

Dell’Osso noted that a fallow deer last November was found killed by a vehicle as far away as Woodacre. The team of park biologists, administrators, and wildlife specialists that drafted the proposals also warned that deer, like cattle and elk, can carry Johne’s disease. While the deer are unaffected by Johne’s, the paratuberculosis disease causes intense diarrhea that can kill elk.

Park Service politics

But the greatest challenge to the axis and fallow deer’s survival in the park is probably the politics of Park Service policy.

In its 2001 Management Policies, the National Park Service instructs parks such as Point Reyes National Seashore to "re-establish natural functions and processes in human-disturbed components of natural systems." Non-native species like fallow and axis deer are given as examples of such "human-caused disturbances."

The management document says the park should control exotic species "up to and including eradication" to return to its historically natural condition.

Need to protect native deer

The park’s 1999 Resource Management Plan says, "Regardless of potential competition and disease issues, the presence of these non-native deer compromises the ecological integrity of the Seashore and the attempts to reestablish the native tule elk and black-tailed deer."

West Marin residents living outside the park were probably surprised to learn there was a need to increase the number of blacktail deer – animals renowned for the heavy toll they take on private gardens.

The question of what to do with the non-native deer has been debated for 40 years, and the controversy has shown no sign of letting up.

Critics of slaughtering

"I really like the new immigrants and think they should stay," Dr. Elliot Katz, president of In Defense of Animals, told The Light. The nationwide, nonprofit, animal-protection organization is based in Mill Valley.

"If a new species comes in and they’re not native, kill them?" asked Katz. "That kind of thinking needs to be looked at in a more careful way. Sometimes, a new species is very hurtful, and then it becomes a choice of saving one life over another, but that’s not the case here with the deer.

"They’re not taking all the food. They’re not badly hurting the other species. Why do they have to be killed? I don’t see where they’re causing so much trouble. I don’t see in the report where the tule elk are starving or where the deer are getting hit by cars because their numbers are so high. I don’t know where this sense of emergency is."

Non-native deer numbers actually are down

Indeed, a review of Park Service records reveals there are now about 200 less non-native deer in the National Seashore than there were 20 years ago and that the number of axis deer has dwindled to a mere 250. At that time, Seashore staff considered opening park lands to supervised public hunting to control the high exotic deer population.

Katz advocates a long-term drug contraception strategy which would obviate the need for shooting the deer. With contraception, Katz said, park staff could maintain the herd populations at a fixed number by limiting reproduction.

"Why not try the contraceptive approach?" Katz asks. "I say start the contraceptive program and see what happens. I don’t see the supporting evidence for killing. Let’s consider the interests of the animals. Too many state agencies say, ‘There’s a problem, so let’s solve it by killing.’ I say, ‘Let’s see how we can deter or prevent them from being a nuisance.’"

Katz said if money is the issue, his organization routinely raises funds for alternatives to killing like contraception. "We can really help when decisions to kill are made based on available funds."

Contraception called worse than death

Dismissing contraception, Dr. Reginald Barrett, a professor of wildlife management at UC Berkeley, said, "I’d rather be shot in the brain than shot repeatedly in the butt.... The animal suffers more in the contraception than during effective culling."

Dr. Barrett said biologists would have to immobilize deer, inject them with contraceptives, and tag or collar the deer for ongoing identification. Because at the moment there is no FDA-approved contraceptive for deer that doesn’t require yearly boosters, this traumatic procedure would have to be repeated throughout the reproductive life of the deer – approximately 10 years, Barrett said.

"I prefer alternative D where they solve the problem as fast and cheaply as possible with the least amount of animal pain and taxpayer pain," he told The Light. Alternative D calls for the shooting all the non-native deer in the park in the next 15 years.

The park’s preferred approach, Alternative E which uses shooting and contraception, would remove all the non-native deer from the park by 2020 but only 1,350 would be killed.

Park hopes to improve aim

In response to community concerns about past instances of shoddy marksmanship, the National Seashore intends to improve its aim. The report said: "Culling would be conducted by park staff specifically trained in wildlife sharpshooting. Every effort would be made to deliver immediately lethal shots to target animals.

"To this end, sharpshooters would be required to complete National Park Service range qualifications at levels of intensity and frequency required for law-enforcement rangers."

For some West Marin residents, the Park Service proposed slaughter of non-native deer is offensive in several ways.

The park’s ‘flawed ideology’

"I’m totally against this," said Ilka Hartman of Bolinas. Hartman, a Professor of Holocaust Studies and Genocide at Sonoma State, regularly drives through the Olema Valley on Highway 1. "I see the deer all the time, and I really cherish them," she said. "I really cherish life.

"At this time when there is so much war and tragedy, any killing of animals for our young people to see is a great mistake and increases the acceptable level of violence."

Hartman sees a fundamental flaw in the park’s thinking. "To choose who may live and who may not live is based on a flawed ideology for controlling nature, which is an old Judeo-Christian attitude dating from the Book of Genesis."

What about elephants & tigers in the park?

For those that enjoy seeing the deer, some in the community argue that the park is taking a puritanical approach and dictating what people should and should not be enjoying.

Dr. Barrett answers that the parks serve a special purpose and needs to stay true to that purpose. "If people say they want to see elephants and lions and tigers in Point Reyes, should we introduce those species?" he said.

Although the elk in the park were taken from a herd in Merced County, Dr. Barrett insisted, "Point Reyes is the only place for tule elk, but there are other places for axis and fallow deer. We need to take care of what’s here, first, and Congress has agreed with that point of view. The national parks need to favor native species."

To the argument that fallow and axis deer have historic significance in West Marin, Dr. Barrett responds, "It’s not acceptable in my mind for a local community to do something different in a national park. Point Reyes is not a not a county park."

Public can have a say

A public information workshop about the non-native deer proposals will be held at Point Reyes National Seashore Park Headquarters from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 3, in the Red Barn at park headquarters.

Those wanting to submit written comments on the draft reports can mail them to Superintendent, Point Reyes National Seashore, Point Reyes Station 94956, Attention: Non-Native Deer Management Plan, or email ann_nelson@nps.gov. To be considered, comments must be postmarked or transmitted no later than April 8.

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