A nonprofit that manages much of Catalina Island is seeking to cull some 2,000 mule deer.
The Catalina Island Conservancy argues that the invasive species threatens the local ecosystem.
The plan is to hire sharpshooters to kill the deer from helicopters, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Catalina Island is just a short boat ride off the coast of Southern California, welcoming over a million tourists a year seeking a peaceful respite from the hustle and smog of Los Angeles.
But the nonprofit that administers much of the island, home to just over 4,000 people year-round, says its very existence as a functioning ecosystem is threatened by a couple of thousand unwanted guests: mule deer, an invasive species first introduced to the island back in the late 1920s when it was still being used for ranching.
The plan is to kill them — specifically, by hiring people to shoot them from helicopters.
"The island and the deer are both fighting for survival, and neither one is winning," Whitney Latorre, chief executive of the Catalina Island Conservancy, told the Los Angeles Times.
The problem is that Catalina's semi-arid land is no match for the roughly 2,000 deer, who are competing for a diminishing amount of vegetation, a situation exacerbated by the climate crisis.
"Unless we address the deer issue, the island will become more and more vulnerable to the devastating consequences brought on by rising temperatures and drought," Latorre said.
Her organization has proposed partnering with another nonprofit, White Buffalo Inc., which employs hunters "to help preserve native species and ecosystems," according to its website.
Catalina has battled — and eliminated — invasive species before. In 1990, hunters killed about 1,700 goats in the span of two weeks, according to the Los Angeles Times. No goats can be found on the island today (Catalina's pig population suffered the same fate).
Bison, too, pose a threat. But they have not been eliminated: The herd has been reduced from about 400 in 1990 to about 100 today through the use of birth control.
The proposal to eliminate mule deer through a mass culling, by contrast, has proven controversial among residents and those concerned with animal welfare. Indeed, not everyone views the mule deer as a threat that needs to be eradicated.
"The mule deer have been on this island for nearly 100 years. Their gentle presence is an integral part of our island's natural appeal," Dianne Stone of the Catalina Island Humane Society wrote in a recent letter to The Catalina Islander, a local newspaper.
The local Humane Society does not oppose all killing of deer, Stone noted; hunters can already sign up for multi-day expeditions. What it opposes is killing them all — and doing so from above in a matter it considers "gruesome and violent." Instead, it advocates a "nonlethal solution," similar to that used for bison: a form of birth control, known as porcine zona pelludcia (PZP) immunocontraception.
"Where is the dignity in slaughtering these innocent animals which are beloved by so many?" Stone asked. A petition opposing the mass culling plan now has over 3,200 signatures.
In a statement, the conservancy argued that the proposed mass culling was the best of bad options, describing the island as having reached a "tipping point" where, if nothing is done, "it will not survive for future generations to enjoy." The mule deer population has grown beyond the island's capacity to feed them, it argued, and efforts to reduce the population through less drastic means have not worked.
"While shooting from helicopters sounds cruel, it is, in fact, the safest, fastest, and most humane method to utilize," the conservancy said.
Oct. 4, 2023: This story was updated to include comment from the Catalina Island Conservancy.
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