LA County tries to stop Catalina Island plans to shoot down invasive deer via helicopters

A proposal from California’s Catalina Island to shoot down invasive mule deer via helicopter has met with a scathing response from Los Angeles County leadership.

The Catalina Island Conservancy, which manages 88 percent of the unincorporated territory’s land, submitted a plan last August to the Department of Fish and Wildlife to eradicate the population, due to its negative impact on island wildlife.

But since that initial submission, members of the public have blasted the plans — leading the region’s county supervisor, Janice Hahn, to send a letter last week to Fish and Wildlife, calling for the rejection of these plans with the unanimous support of the other four supervisors.

“Eradicating Catalina Island’s entire population of more than 1,770 mule deer through aerial shooting from helicopters is inhumane and drastic, and potentially dangerous to the public,” Hahn wrote, in the April 23 letter. “Less extreme measures to control the deer population that do not pose risks to public safety should be considered and employed.”

The Catalina Island Conservancy plan examines various methodologies for mitigating the mule deer population, which was introduced to the island in the early 1930s as a game species.

“As an invasive animal, the mule deer destroy native and endemic vegetation only found on Catalina Island, which evolved without defense mechanisms against mule deer and outside threats,” the group said. “The deer have no natural predators, so their population goes through extreme boom and bust cycles.”

That population can range from 500 to more than 1,800 animals depending on rainfall, according to the Conservancy. At eight to 10 times the density of populations on the mainland, Catalina’s deer are on one hand stripping the island of its native vegetation but on the other hand suffering starvation, the group argued.

The Conservancy explored six different types of mitigation methodologies, such as mass sterilization, through contraceptives or surgeries. Accessing sufficient deer across 70 square miles would be difficult, while contraceptive treatment could take years to work adequately, the group argued.

Relocation, meanwhile, would mean engaging in a capture process that sometimes causes the animals to die from stress-induced kidney or heart failure, the group noted. There is also no guarantee that the deer would easily adapt to a new environment, the report added.

The introduction of natural predators could cause further ecosystem issues, while also posing a threat to humans, according to the Conservancy. Tasking recreational hunters with eliminating the deer could be “effective when combined with other methods,” but could end up dangerous, time-consuming and cost-prohibitive, the group found.

Assessing the possibility of fencing off the deer to physically isolate them, the writers found that doing so would be challenging due to the island’s rugged landscape, while also impeding the population’s access to life-sustaining natural resources.

On the other hand, the Conservancy characterized sharpshooting from helicopters as “an effective and efficient method for removing large numbers of deer over a relatively short period of time.” This approach could occur “in a controlled and organized manner” and would not be limited by topographical obstacles, the group found.

In Hahn’s letter to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, she cited the “intense public outcry” and “significant community opposition” that led the supervisors to call for a rejection of the permit application.

“I understand the Conservancy’s concerns with the impact of the deer population, but I disagree that massacring hundreds of animals from helicopters is the right solution,” Hahn said in an accompanying statement.

As of last week, she noted that two petitions to stop the eradication plans had accrued almost 90,000 signatures.

“This plan is extreme and I have heard from my constituents both on and off the island who oppose it,” Hahn continued. “I am asking the Conservancy to put this plan on hold and reconsider several alternative proposals they had previously dismissed.”

When asked about the county’s letter, the Conservancy said in a statement, “Although disappointed, we remain dedicated to finding a path forward with the County Supervisor’s office to make Catalina a safer, more self-sustaining, and resilient island for generations to come.”

The Hill has reached out to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for comment.

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