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."
A bullet to the head is more humane, says Salzman.
Gunshot is indeed a method of euthanasia sanctioned by the American Veterinary Medical Association, which provides a graphic recipe for killing an animal with a gun in documents from an association panel on euthanasia:
"A properly placed gunshot can cause immediate insensibility and humane death…For wildlife and other freely roaming animals, the preferred target area should be the head…A gunshot to the heart or neck does not immediately render animals unconscious and thus is not considered to meet the panel's definition of euthanasia."
And that's exactly the spector—the image of a gut-shot deer bleeding out to a painful death somewhere in the bush—that gets the blood boiling of opponents to the park's plan.
"We've been down this road before," says Cindy Machado, animal services director for the Marin Humane Society, referring to the earlier hunts in the park. "The public needs to know that when you talk about shooting wildlife in a capacity that's a flat-out kill run it's not like hunting big game. This is about creating a bloodbath situation. After the first shot is fired—animals are very wise and very knowledgeable about what’s going on—it's very hard to ensure a humane death by bullet."
In the past, says Machado, a 23-year veteran of the Humane Society, some wounded deer were left to die on the land. “Many deer got away from park officials,” she says. "Some we had to dispatch."
Elliot Katz, In Defense of Animals: "They're planning on bringing in this group from New Zealnad to fly overhead and sharpshoot the deer. I think it's ridiculous. We really don't want the Point Reyes National Seashore to become a killing field.
The very idea of hunting the deer, regardless of how clean the shooting is, incenses Elliot Katz, a veterinarian who founded and runs In Defense of Animals, a vocal San Rafael advocacy group.
“This will be a slaughter,” Katz says. “They’re planning on bringing in this group from New Zealand to fly overhead and sharp-shoot the deer. I think it’s ridiculous. We really don’t want the Point Reyes National Seashore to become a killing field.”
Natalie Gates, a research biologist, acknowledges that “it is impractical to think you will never have shots that are not perfect. If we pick the right contractor, with the right equipment and they’re allowed to do what they do best, I think we’ll have minimal problems.”
Nonetheless, critics conjure up images of riflemen hanging from the doors of helicopters gunning down fawns as horrified park tourists look on. John Dell’Osso, chief of interpretation and resource education for Point Reyes National Seashore, calls such scenarios “totally sensationalistic. We’ve never said that is going to be a form of doing this and it probably can’t be for a variety of reasons.”
Still, one of the firms reportedly under consideration for the Point Reyes job, ProHunt, a New Zealand company that specializes in ungulate “eradication,” features a large photo of a helicopter on its main web page.
Its chief executive, Norm MacDonald, recently told a Chronicle reporter how his crew used helicopter-borne shooters to successfully wipe out 95 percent of the feral pigs on one of the Channel Islands in Southern California for the National Park Service. The other five percent had to be tracked on foot. “It’s those little tiny piglets, the ones just big enough to survive on their own, that are the toughest to get,” MacDonald said.
Katz argues that a “rush to kill” by park officials stems from what he sees as a misguided ethos of preservation, a self-imposed “mandate that says the park should be kept as it was when they first created the park.”
“The mandate is that everything stays the same. It’s static. Whatever was there you try to preserve, anything new you try to kill,” he says. “As an animal protection person, as a veterinarian, I don’t think that all makes sense. Part of the reason I founded In Defense of Animals was I realized that, for the most part, when federal or state agencies see a problem with another species they’re very quick to say let’s kill, let’s reduce the numbers.”
Opponents of the park service assert that fallow and axis deer have been part of the Point Reyes environment long enough to be granted native status. “These deer have been part of the natural landscape as long as they’ve been alive. At what point does a species become no longer nonnative?” asks Machado, of the Humane Society. “The deer are part of the park’s history. They were brought here. Just like the dairies out there have been part of the history and we let cows graze on parkland. Why all of a sudden is the deer equation suddenly out of whack?”
Sixty years doesn’t a native species make, counters Salzman, the Marin Audubon Society president. “It would have to take thousands of years,” she says. “They (the deer) haven’t been here that long. Nature takes a long time.”
Still, it’s a fair enough point on the surface. Ever since Noah loaded up the Ark, humans have been taking plants and animals from their native environments and transporting them to new locations—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
Nonnative species have brought us great benefit (horses and cattle in North America courtesy of European explorers) and great harm (the pathogen responsible for the Sudden Oak Death scourge in Marin County hitchhiked here from Asia aboard a rhododendron plant). A distinction is the difference between non-native and invasive. The Point Reyes National Seashore, for example, is riddled with nonnative life. Of the more than 900 species of plants in the park, about one third are nonnative, but not all are invasive. Some, like the daffodil or Monterey pine, merely add to the diversity of the park.
“An invasive species expands its range and its numbers,” says Dell’Osso, the park’s chief of resource education, “simply because there is no control over the growth by natural predators or other conditions.”
Invasive flora introduced do threaten the Point Reyes ecosystem, says Dell’Osso. He points to proliferation of European beachgrass, which was planted on the park’s beaches to stabilize sand dunes. The grass did its job. The dunes don’t move and that means an endangered bird like the western snowy plover that nests in the dunes is more easily preyed upon because it loses its natural defense—shifting sand.
All told, scientists estimate, 50,000 invasive alien species exist in the United States and cost the national economy $120 billion in control and eradication efforts. The exact cost of the plan at Point Reyes will depend on how successful the park service is in sterilizing the deer. It’s much cheaper to shoot the deer than to give them a contraceptive—$300 to $400 an animal vs. about $3,000, says Dell’Osso. The contraceptive plan, which critics characterize as overly complicated and not—in the words of the Humane Society’s Machado—“as state-of-the-art as some other approaches”—uses an unproven drug and is admittedly experimental, says park biologist Gates, but its value beyond any resulting reduction in breeding lies in an underlying scientific goal.
“No long-duration contraceptive has ever been tried on fallow deer,” she says. “We know we cannot do it if we have to (treat) these animals every year. The purpose of this experiment is to find a drug that will prevent pregnancy for the lifetime of the animal (10 to 12 years). This is the holy grail of wildlife contraception.”
Should the contraception work as forecast, the plan’s environmental impact statement estimates, then over the 15-year life of the program 1,300 deer (800 axis and 550 fallow) will be shot. Meat from the deer will be donated to food banks in Marin and Sonoma counties, and some will be given to the California Condor Recovery Program.
Few people in the Point Reyes area have a longer history with fallow deer than Joanne Stewart, matriarch of the Stewart Ranch, whose lands south of Olema are partly within the Point Reyes National Seashore. Stewart, 78, recalls when Millard Ottinger brought the deer into the area. “There was never a problem with them while hunting was on,” Stewart says. “They stayed out on the Point and were hunted every year by local ranchers or gun clubs.”
Today, though, fallow deer damage the land on which Stewart and her family raise 200 head of Angus beef cattle. The deer graze in herds of 20 to 40 in Stewart Ranch meadows, eating as much in a day as 15 cattle, says Stewart, which makes it difficult to prevent overgrazing. “We rotate cattle through different pastures so they don’t overgraze,” she says, “but obviously the deer don’t understand this and they continually graze in the same pasture.”
Stewart’s view of the park service plan is complex and in many ways encapsulates the entire debate. The deer “should be managed by whatever means” necessary, she says. “Personally, I don’t think contraception is very practical. I do think that some of the deer should be euthanized,” but “being practical about it I don’t think the park service will ever eliminate or annihilate them.”
As a rancher who raises cattle headed for the slaughterhouse, Stewart doesn’t flinch at the thought of killing the deer, but, she says, the “animals deserve a very humane death. How you die is very important.” In the end, says Stewart, the deer—as cute as they might be—should be treated as any other animal that is overbreeding.
“What do humane societies do with all the unwanted puppies and kittens?” she asks. “Is there a difference really? Should they be euthanized properly? Very definitely, yes. Undeniably. But animals of all kinds should be managed, ungulates as well as puppies, dogs and cats.”