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

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

    NPS
  • 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.”

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