The deer departed

And the ones that will remain while the National Park Service conducts a controversial mammal birth-control experiment at Point Reyes National Seashore

  • Fallow deer outside the Bear Valley Visitor Center at the Point Reyes National Seashore

  • Deer use their antlers to scrape away ground vegetation, break tree limbs and girdle trees

  • A fallow deer buck with vegetation caught in its antlers

    US Geological Survey

Thanks to a seemingly misguided federal experiment in deer birth control, more than 1,000 of the estimated 2,250 exotic deer at Point Reyes National Seashore will likely survive a coming bloodbath.

Sharpshooters hired by the National Park Service are slated to kill many of the fallow deer, native to Europe and the Mediterranean, and axis deer, native to India and southern Asia, said to be devouring forage needed by native wildlife at the seashore, located north of San Francisco. But after protests by animal-rights supporters who oppose hunting in almost all cases — including primatologist Jane Goodall and the anti-hunting group In Defense of Animals — the Park Service has come up with another plan to keep the non-natives’ numbers down.

The non-native does will be treated with contraceptives.

Experts in cervine birth control — a field developed to control deer populations in cities and other places where hunting is impractical — say the Point Reyes prophylactic program is doomed to fail. The program, they say, may in fact set back the cause of urban deer birth control by enhancing conflicts between hunters and some animal-rights advocates who see contraception as a way to limit or even end hunting.

“Every time someone gets up and says contraception is the way to end sport hunting, it puts us a mile further behind,” says Jay Kirkpatrick, director of the Science and Conservation Center, a Billings, Mont., nonprofit dedicated to wildlife contraception. “It takes everybody who likes hunting, and it polarizes it. It chases them to the other side of the table. And you have these two rigid black-and-white views about whether this has anything to do with hunting.

“This is not a solution to 20 million deer in the United States. It isn’t even a solution to deer in Marin County. It is a solution to discrete populations of urban deer, ones which are causing problems.”


The debate over what to do about Point Reyes’ exploding exotic deer population has its roots in the predatory pretensions of a San Francisco physician who purchased a piece of land for use as a hunting preserve 40 miles from the city.

During the 1940s and ’50s, the San Francisco Zoo had too many fallow and axis deer, and Millard “Doc” Ottinger bought 32 of them, so he and his friends could shoot them on his land. Early in the 1970s, Ottinger’s ranch was incorporated into a new national park at Point Reyes, the hunting stopped, and the deer population surged. In 1976, the park began assigning staffers to shoot deer. During the next two decades they shot 3,000 of the animals.

The culling worked, for the most part, but over the years the Marin County Humane Society occasionally received complaints from homeowners near the park, distraught about bloody wounded deer wandering onto their property. In 1994, when there were an estimated 700 exotic deer in the park, the Humane Society convinced the Park Service to hang up its rifles. Now, according to Natalie Gates, research biologist at the park, there are some 2,000 fallow deer in Point Reyes and at least 250 axis deer.

A few years ago, when the exotic deer population was about half its current level, the animals ate a ton of forage a day, the Park Service says, causing native black-tailed deer to go hungry and possibly affecting their reproduction. Since then, ever-more intense competition for food among native and non-native deer appears to have been harming ground-nesting birds, park officials say.

In 2004, the National Park Service announced it was considering two possible plans to deal with the invasive deer: either shoot them all, or shoot most of them and treat the others with contraceptives. The Park Service began hearing from Goodall and a myriad of groups, including In Defense of Animals and the Marin County Peace and Justice Coalition, opposed to the idea of shooting deer.

The rhetoric was, to say the least, unrestrained.

“Someone who goes and shoots a deer shouldn’t themselves be reproducing,” said Elliot Katz, president and founder of In Defense of Animals. “They need to hold off on any killing, certainly at the minimum, and look into an alternative solution.”

Goodall chimed in with a letter that said, “We must oppose the senseless killing of life for any reason and choose alternatives to the lethal removal currently under consideration in your park.”

May 30, 2007 11:37 AM

Save the native ecosystems and fund invasive and non native species programs.

Jun 01, 2007 02:10 PM

Finally, a program that makes sense.  I can't think of another species of mammal that would benefit from government-subsidized contraception.

Jun 01, 2007 02:38 PM

I do not understand the logic of people, Jane Goodall for instance, that would want to put native wildlife in danger of starving and loosing what is left of natural habitat. I love Jane and her work, but some times such as the situation of invasive species, need to be put back in balance. ( In my opinion not exsist here at all) These non-native animals do not belong here and live where they are supposed to in their native land . If we loose our wildlife here it is permanent! Eva Seifert-Aragon

Jun 01, 2007 06:18 PM

The park needs to be opened to recreational hunting until this problem is solved. Recerational hunters are losing oppurtunites everyday to do developement. Letting hunters in the park would cost the taxpayer nothing, it would provide recreation oppurtunites, and it would provide fresh, healthy meet to the hunters and thier families. It surprises me Jane Goodall would be anti-hunting. As an anthropologist, she fully understands that humans evolved as meat eating hunters and that we are omnivores. The chimps she studied are our closest living relatives and will kill and eat antelope fawns and monkeys themselves, which provides further evidence that hunting is perfectly natural for humans.

Jun 04, 2007 06:39 PM

Hello There,

I thought your readers should see the new website that has been put up by the local citizens of Marin County at

 The methods you are citing here of net dropping, etc. are soon to be replaced by more effective, and vastly less expensive dart gun technology. The field of animal contraception is constantly improving, as the NPS knows, and the local people of Marin are asking that the NPS hold their horses rather than going on a hasty shooting spree of the fallow and axis deer.

These deer are highly valued by locals and by the 2.5 million annual visitors to the park. We want to share the park with these gentle and beautiful deer, and having lived with them for 3 generations, we are disgusted by the idea of their violent end at the hands of mercenary gunmen. Environmental cleansing is an ugly idea and we do not want violence in our park. We are asking that the NPS study the deer in the interim of awaiting the final work that is needed to make dart gun technology truly effective.

If you would like to learn more about this issue, I invite you to visit the website and delve into the behind-the-scenes facts of what is going on in West Marin, as well as the disturbing evidence of the inhumane policies the NPS is carrying out across our country.  


Jun 05, 2007 11:15 AM

I believe the birth control program at Point Reyes and other similar public areas is a good approach.  It must be given a chance to succeed.   As some who has lived with deer my whole life in both rural and suburban settings, I believe there are multiple major problems with allowing hunting in popular public lands, parks, and refuges.  First, publicly owned lands are, by definition, public, and the presence of hunting, even directed sharpshooter hunting, is very intimidating to the majority of the public who want to be able to hike, camp, and view wildlife year-round without the fear that the animal they are thrilled to see one moment will die at human hands the next.   The prohibition on hunting in public lands and refuges is something highly valued by most of the public, and is in fact the reason for setting up the refuges in the first place, even by hunters (e.g. Teddy Roosevelt).  Opening up more and more public lands to recreational hunting is a terrible loss for what these lands and habitat were meant for.   Hunting also changes the dynamic of wildlife interaction:  with hunting introduced, non-hunting human visitors to the park have to fear that their very presence viewing or photographing any time of the year will endanger an animal by making it complacent to humans and therefore more at risk of suffering from a human weapon.  And suffering is the right word:  let's face it, in spite of the wholesome sound of words like "harvesting", many animals do not die instantly from bullets or, worse, arrows and traps, but suffer inexcusably.  The continual pursuit in itself is also hard on a herd that needs to concentrate on grazing.   Studies have also shown that deer populations that are sensitive to group culling and trauma: hunting induces females to multi-ovulate, producing more twins and triplets and at younger ages than is seen in non-hunted populations.  Thus hunting may even induce a higher birth-rate, something that may not be seen as a problem for private hunting grounds but is not wanted in our national park areas like Point Reyes.    Instead, instead of animal annihilation, programs like birth control efforts, or at least programs to teach people how to live at peace with living deer and protect vegetation, are more in line with the growing desire of people to respect the lives of animals, and make more sense in our public lands.   An additional humane approach may be to simply high-fence off different parts of the park from time to time, allowing the vegetation a break to recover from grazing of deer and other animals.  




Fallow deer
Apr 12, 2009 05:18 PM
This is a waste of money!!!!! Why in the world would you want to spend so much money on an exotic deer! Many people have no business in making up rules on how to manage animal populations, yet more and more poeple complain about the hunting of animals to keep the population under control. Why do you feel so inclined that your way is correct? Maybe these people have watched the movie "Bambi" way too many times.