Wednesday, December 06, 2006

CALIFORNIA NEWS: Culling Exotic Deer at Point Reyes

The days of non-native deer populations in the Point Reyes National Seashore are officially numbered.

A National Park Service plan to kill off fallow and axis deer by a combination of contraception and shooting has been approved and entered into the Federal Register. The deer - which biologists say have run roughshod over the park's ecosystem - will be eliminated by 2021 under the plan.

"We will now get a group of people together to begin to talk about how to implement the program," said John Dell'Osso, Point Reyes National Seashore spokesman. "Nothing will start until next year."

The plan to shoot the deer has been controversial, and groups such as the Marin Humane Society vow to keep fighting the plan.

"The decision may be in the books, but our work will continue to save the animals," said Diane Allevato, executive director of the humane society. "There is strong community opposition to this decision and a lot can happen in the 15 years the park service is saying it will take to remove the deer. It's not over for us."

Some female deer will be rounded up with use of a helicopter, then injected with a drug that will keep them from becoming pregnant. The park service will hire a company to shoot the rest of the deer.

The park service has a $750,000 budget for the project. A timeline has not been set.
The park service will donate the venison and hides to nonprofit or charity organizations. A California condor recovery program and food banks have expressed interest in the meat, and American Indian groups are interested in the pelts.

John Jarvis, director of the National Park Service's Pacific West region, gave the plan his approval in October and it was published in the Federal Register last week.

The issue has sparked years of debate. More than 2,000 written and oral comments were presented during recent testimony on the issue as the plan was reviewed.

Two types of non-native deer - which live up to 20 years - roam the 100-square-mile Point Reyes National Seashore: fallow deer, native to Europe and the Mediterranean; and axis deer, native to India and southern Asia.

In the 1940s, the species were purchased by a West Marin land owner from the San Francisco Zoo, which had an excess of the animals. The land owner then released the animals on his property for hunting. When his land later became part of the Point Reyes National Seashore, which was established in 1962, hunting ceased. Those that survived began to re-populate in the area.

Today, there are 300 axis deer and about 1,000 fallow deer. The latter's population has doubled since 2003.

Fallow deer were once concentrated in the central part of the seashore but are now found throughout the park. Their range has been documented eastward, beyond the park's borders. They have been seen on nearby private property and state parklands. If the migration continues, management of the species could become difficult, park officials say.

Park biologists are concerned the non-natives might out-muscle native black-tail deer and tule elk for food, water and cover. The non-natives also can carry disease.

The animals eat 5 to 10 percent of their body weight a day, taking in a ton of forage daily, food that otherwise would be available to native deer. Rabbits, rodents and other animals are affected, too, and officials see ridding the area of deer as the best way to balance nature.

Until 1994, the deer populations were kept in check by shooting by park officials. The deer meat was given to charitable organizations. But that practice stopped when the park service said it wanted to study the situation.

Since then, the non-native deer populations have gone uncontrolled.

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