AVALON, Calif. — A plan to use helicopter-mounted sharpshooters to kill nearly 2,000 invasive mule deer roaming the mountains of Santa Catalina Island has ignited a storm of protest among residents of the popular resort destination and prompted calls for state wildlife officials to block the hunt.
The Catalina Island Conservancy — the nonprofit that manages 90% of the island and is mandated to return it to its natural state — says the mass culling is necessary to protect Catalina’s native plants and grasses, which have been devastated by herds of foraging deer.
Recurring cycles of extreme drought and wildfire have also taken a toll on back country vegetation, forcing emaciated deer to seek sustenance in developed areas of the island, where they come into conflict with humans and pets, officials say.
“The island and the deer are both fighting for survival and neither one is winning,” said Whitney Latorre, 44, the conservancy’s chief executive officer.
“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,” she said.
The deer hunting plan is just the latest in a long string of attempts to impose some form of ecological order on the fragile and beloved island just 22 miles off the coast of Southern California. At one point or another, a menagerie of imported goats, bison, swine and other animals have all threatened to overwhelm those species native to California’s Channel Islands.
According to conservancy officials, mule deer are the most destructive invasive animal left on Catalina. Intense grazing by deer has placed increasing stress on native plants and paved the way for the spread of highly flammable invasive weeds, such as flax-leaf broom.
The deer also amble into the harbor community of Avalon, where they feast on home gardens, attack pets or become entangled in lawn chairs and soccer nets.
“We understand that this is a bold and ambitious restoration project — and it will take courage to see it through, no doubt about it,” Latorre said. “The right things to do aren’t easy.”
That kind of talk has ignited deep passions on and off the island where more than 2,000 people have signed a petition urging the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to reject the conservancy’s application to eradicate mule deer.
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