Do the wild mule deer of Catalina Island deserve to stay? Or should a helicopter hunt be used to wipe out the invasive species once and for all?
That’s the dilemma facing this popular tourist destination off the coast of Los Angeles County. Mule deer have lived on the island since California wildlife officials introduced them nearly 100 years ago. Since then, they’ve become a staple for both residents and tourists, who frequently feed the animals. But they’re also one of the last major obstacles to the Catalina Island Restoration Project, which aims to bring back the island’s delicate ecosystem — home to 60 plants and animals found nowhere else.
After trying for years to eliminate the island’s deer population through conventional hunting programs, the Catalina Island Conservancy has arrived at a controversial solution: Using helicopters to kill most of them in a single season. More than 7,600 people have signed an online petition to stop the plan, which many signees called a “slaughter” or even an “abomination.”
But according to the conservancy, it’s the only effective solution.
“For many people, the first thought is that this is a crazy thing to do,” said Lauren Dennhardt, the group’s Director of Conservation. “The more you dive into it, the more it becomes clear … Right now, it’s the island versus the deer and neither side is winning.”
A Gradual Removal of Destructive Species
This isn’t the first time that island conservationists tapped hunters with helicopters to eliminate a problematic species.
In 1994, the Catalina Island Conservancy used helicopters to kill 7,700 goats, effectively wiping out the vast majority of the population. In comments to the Change.org petition, several residents framed that “slaughter” in the same terms as the new plan for mule deer. Shooting animals from helicopters is “barbaric” and “despicable,” said many petitioners.
“It is a waste to let these animals rot,” Colton Sanborn wrote on Oct. 9. “The conservancy should allow more access to hunters that would love the opportunity to hunt these deer. Make Catalina Island more accessible to hunters and minimize the wasted food!”
But according to the conservancy, that’s exactly what they’ve been trying to do for many years. Catalina Island already has the longest hunting season in all of California. In the last 10 years, hunters have killed 2,000 deer — about the same number that still exists on the island today.
The island is also intensely rugged, so many deer live in remote canyons that would be dangerous even for veteran deer hunters. While the conservancy will try to remove as many carcasses as possible, many will be left to rot in these hard-to-reach places.
As for the “meat,” it’s likely not edible, as the deer population is largely unhealthy from a lack of water and food. And even if they were healthy, state rules would require the conservancy to ship the meat to the mainland for lab testing, and then ship it back.
For these reasons, California’s Department of Fish & Wildlife supports the plan for helicopter hunts, set to begin late next year.
“The goal of the project is to restore ecosystem function and preserve Catalina’s unique and rare biodiversity, including some of the rarest plant species in our state and beyond,” a spokesperson said. “The project aims to propagate native flora and fauna which, in turn, improves climate and wildfire resiliency.”
Building a Sustainable Ecosystem
That last point is especially timely, given the wildfires that devastated Maui in August.
A key trigger for those fires, which killed nearly 100 people, were invasive grasses that “had transformed the island into a giant tinderbox,” Smithsonian Magazine reported. On Catalina Island, the mule deer eat shrubs and other native plants more resistant to fires, promoting the growth of the same highly flammable grasses found in Maui.
Conservancy scientists saw a clear example of this problem back in 2007, when a wildfire burned 10% of the island. With the invasive grasses burned away, native plant species began to reassert themselves — but were immediately eaten by non-native species like the mule deer.
Dennhardt, the conservancy’s top scientist, said it’s a “challenging situation.” Restoration projects on the island have been in works for decades, with gradual success. Most of the other major non-native species — including goats, pigs, sheep, and bison — have been removed, though about 90 bison remain.
If the conservancy can eradicate the deer as well, there’s a chance to save not just a single species, but an entire ecosystem, she said.
“The species that we have here are like this postage stamp of ancient California,” Dennhardt said. “We have species here that went extinct on the mainland thousands of years ago.”
The conservancy has even tested their theory of a restored island with several fenced enclosures to keep out the deer. The result? A “lush forest” that represents what the island once looked like 200 years before human interference.
“It’s an emotional experience for people going inside these enclosures,” Dennhardt said. “Because they can hear the birds and feel the difference. It’s remarkable and special and it’s worth doing.”