The deer departed

by M. Martin Smith

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.”

To mollify the activists, the Park Service settled on a scheme that involves shooting mostly stags. Many of the exotic does will be kept alive so park officials can exercise a “humane alternative” — capturing females with nets dropped from helicopters and injecting them with a contraceptive drug.

The experiment will employ GonaCon, a mammal contraceptive developed by the National Wildlife Research Center, a USDA pharmaceutical lab in Fort Collins, Colo. The center develops contraceptives and poisons designed to reduce pest populations where hunting is either impractical or impolitic. GonaCon keeps deer infertile — but only if they’re frequently re-injected.

At Point Reyes, this means that some 1,100 does that wander through more than 100 square miles of parkland must be found, captured and injected once a year over the course of the experiment’s 20-year lifespan. The contraception program will cost the park $210,000 per year.

And because of the difficulties of finding and re-injecting the does on schedule, park officials concede the deer birth-control effort is unlikely to work. “The contraceptive would not be a practical tool for trying to eliminate a population, because it’s not always 100 percent effective,” said Gail Keirn, spokeswoman for the National Wildlife Research Center.

“It may or may not work here,” adds Gates, the seashore biologist. “But it may have applications across the country.”

 

Over the past two decades, Kirkpatrick and his Science and Conservation Center have tested his version of a mammal contraceptive, PZP, on wild horses and deer. During experiments over many years, he’s found the injected serum can stanch mammal population growth under certain conditions.

But like GonaCon, the Agriculture Department’s birth-control vaccine, PZP has limitations that will be familiar to hairless bipedal mammals who’ve had to remember to take birth control pills. At their current level of development, deer contraceptives require repeated injection, making them impractical for all but the smallest, most-confined and tamest deer populations: those trapped in cities and suburbs.

Although deer contraception has almost no potential to supplant hunting as a method for checking wild deer populations, during Kirkpatrick’s decades of vaccine testing, he says he’s encountered strong opposition from hunters’ groups and state fish and game departments. And Allen Rutberg, assistant professor at the Center for Animals and Public Policy at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, says the idea that deer contraception is a threat to hunting has become a self-sustaining legend.

“Expectations for contraception are wildly inflated on both sides,” Rutberg says. “There are (animal rights) advocates who say that contraception will be the end of hunting, and I have heard that lots of times. There are also (wildlife) agency folks who see this as a threat to hunting; they are nervous about it because of what the animal-rights people say.”

Deer overpopulation is a growing problem in the West and across the country, as cities expand into deer habitat. In February, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, city council members planned to meet with the state Fish and Game department to address a local deer plague. In April, Helena, Mont., announced a new city wildlife management plan to fend off a growing urban deer population. In Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, among other states, whitetail and other deer species are thriving in the open spaces of suburbia.

Deer contraception has been shown to work on isolated populations — at Fire Island, N.Y., and at the National Institute of Standards and Technology campus in Gaithersburg, Md., for instance — and it has legitimate use controlling tame deer living in cities. But the seemingly innocuous blocking of reproduction by a small number of suburban does will likely continue to face resistance, Kirkpatrick says, thanks to an irrelevant debate over sport hunting.

By caving into pressure and using deer contraception in an environment it wasn’t intended for, the National Park Service risks simultaneously encouraging animal-rights activists’ vain hopes and hunters’ unwarranted fears that deer contraception will be used to limit sport hunting in America.

“I’ve hunted everything over the course of my life: pheasants, deer, elk, antelope. That’s why I believe this whole issue of connecting this (contraceptive) to hunting is irrational,” Kirkpatrick, the deer-contraceptive researcher, says. “I can’t begin to connect the idea of sport hunting to shooting human-habituated deer.”

The author writes from California.

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