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Bambi vs. Bambi

A National Park Service plan to kill off exotic Point Reyes deer pits one species against another.

Two fallow deer-a dark buck with his just-sprouted spring antlers, and a tan doe-graze in a Point Reyes meadow.

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Early on a glorious Marin County morning, the rising sun burning off the last of the night fog and a wisp of salty ocean breeze seasoning the air, I'm walking up a hillside in the Point Reyes National Seashore waist deep in damp, green grass.

I step softly, stay in a crouch and use the crest of the hill to hide my movement. I walk and stop, walk and stop, walk and stop. Noise is my enemy. During one pause, I look back. Below is Bear Valley Road, snaking from Highway 1 toward park headquarters; to the north is the blue gash of Tomales Bay; to the east is the bulbous hump of Black Mountain. I move ahead a few more steps. Now I can see my prey.

Three deer, a dark buck and two does, one of them white, the other mottled with spots, are grazing 50 feet away. I drop to my knees and inch forward to a small bush. The white doe jerks up her head, ears alert, eyes wide, and stares toward me. I go still, thankful I am upwind. Three trips into the brush and this is as close as I've ever gotten. A full minute passes with the deer and I in freeze frame. Then it decides the danger has passed and begins eating again.

The moment the doe lowers its head, I raise my gear to eye, bring the animal into focus and shoot.

Got it. A sharp, tight photograph of a fallow deer.

Starting as early as this fall, this scene will be repeated many times, but the stalkers will be carrying rifles instead of cameras. The hunt for fallow deer—and their equally unwelcome ungulate cousins, axis deer—will be part of the National Park Service's controversial plan to rid Point Reyes of these imported animals once and for all.

The plan, approved last August and part of a larger effort to expunge destructive, nonnative animals and plants from the park, combines hunting by professional wildlife sharpshooters with a contraceptive program. The goal is to clear the deer from the park by 2021.

As you might expect, the idea of shooting animals described by some as "unicorns" and characterized in newspaper headlines as "Bambi" doesn't sit well with some West Marin locals and animal rights groups. ("Bambi Must Die," proclaimed one San Francisco newspaper; "Easy Target," declared another.)

The plan is supported by environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Marin Audubon Society, who say the nonnative deer are harming the seashore's unique ecosystem, and by many local cattle ranchers, who have had it with the critters grazing in their pastures.

The animals are the progeny of a couple dozen fallow and axis deer bought from the San Francisco Zoo in 1948 by Millard Ottinger, a local surgeon who owned 5,000 acres on the Point Reyes Peninsula that he and his buddies used for hunting. The fallow are natives of Asia; the axis originate from India. When the federal government created the 70,000-acre Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962, Ottinger's land became part of the park, the hunting stopped and the imported deer do what all animals (and humans) do—they bred (and bred and bred).

Today, about 850 fallow and 250 axis deer roam the park. There would be even more, but from 1976 to 1994 the park controlled the herd with annual hunts that killed more than 2,000 deer. Budget reasons and local opposition ending the hunting, according to a park service summary of the new plan. Unchecked since then, the number of deer (particularly fallows) is growing. Already, they've wandered beyond the park; one was seen as far east as Woodacre. Unless something is done soon, they will destroy the blacktail population, the park says.

John Dell'Osso, National Park Service: "Our charge is to preserve an ecosystem. This (shooting) is one method of doing doing. Is this the preferred thing? Do we want to out there and do this? No."

"Our charge is to preserve an ecosystem," says John Dell'Osso, chief of interpretation and resource education for Point Reyes National Seashore. "This (shooting) is one method of doing it. Is this the preferred thing? Do we want to go out there and do this? No. But we have a problem and if we don’t address it, and don't address it now, are people OK with saying we won't have any black-tailed deer in 20 or 30 years in West Marin? Are people OK with that? I really don't think that they are.”

The park service says the fallow and axis deer eat vast quantities (one to two tons a day) of the same food needed by the park's 1,600 black-tailed deer and 400 tule elk. They also damage, by trampling or grazing, habitat that supports such fragile species as the California red-legged frog and coho salmon. And during the fall rutting season, fallow bucks dig up large swaths of ground to make leks—essentially sexy (to a deer) bachelor pads designed to lure in passing females. (Your lek or mine?)

With the situation framed this way, park administrators and scientists say they are forced to choose between the deer and the larger environment. They went with the latter, as did local environmental groups.

The "key issue" is biodiversity, says Gordon Bennett, chair of the Marin chapter of the Sierra Club. "It's unfortunate that has to be maintained by removing these deer...What people have a hard time understanding is that whatever decision is going to be made, there are going to be deer that are going to be dead. The only question is, which deer is it? If the exotic deer grow and proliferate, the numbers of the native deer are going to be reduced. Given that situation, we choose the native deer. If you want to see exotic deer, go and look at them at the zoo."

The Marin Audubon Society's position is even clearer—forget the contraception program; shoot the nonnative deer now and get it over with. "We're in favor of eliminating them as soon as possible," says Barbara Salzman, president of the group. The contraception plan is unproven and unduly harsh on the deer, which must be chased, trapped and injected—sometimes more than once, she says. "Ungulates (hoofed animals) are extremely stressed when being captured for injection and it's not exactly an experience that is beneficial for them. Some even die under those circumstances."

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