Axis And Fallow Deer:
National Park Says "Off With Their Heads!"
By Richard Kirschman
Something doesn't ring quite true with the National Park Service's campaign to eliminate the Axis and Fallow deer from our National Seashore. And it's been quite a campaign: public meetings, expensive management plans/impact reports, and expert testimony. The public meeting they held on March 3rd to explain their plans resembled a drug company's panel of experts pitching the FDA for approval of a new medicine. Everybody on the panel came to the same conclusions and agreed on the same courses of action. I couldn't help but think of our intelligence experts agreement about the existence of weapons of mass destruction before we invaded Iraq. So I'm skeptical of the Park's authorities. The authority I am inclined to listen to is Jane Goodall. This internationally respected scientist is dead set against the idea of exterminating these deer.
This is the natural world we're talking about. The relationship between animals, plants and their environment is the most complex of all studies. How can the Park be so sure they're right? There are countless stories about how well meaning efforts to eradicate a species have backfired. The axis and fallow deer are already here - and have been for more than 50 years - long an intragal part of the park - along with the cattle, the roads, 2,500,000 annual visitors, horses, and thousands of local residents. Many people come here just to see the white deer. There is no way to restore this area to some pre-Columbian Garden of Eden. I hope that's no one's secret dream.
A genuine evidence-based case has not been made for the need to exterminate. The Park Service's case is been built around fear that these deer are a threat to other species. Arguing that they should be eliminated because they eat the same food as some other animal or may step on rare plants, isn't science it's a scare tactic. This isn't a zero sum game in which the deer only exist at the expense of other animals. There is no ecological doom hanging over us if we do not go along with the Park's plan.
When I dig into the Park's own reports I find statements like: "To date no direct effects have been noted on the productivity or survival of owls," or that elimination would have only "minor long term beneficial effects" on snowy plovers, red-legged frogs, coho salmon etc., "Adverse impacts to rare plants in the Seashore are currently considered to be minor." You'd think that after more than a half century of being a part of this environment there would be something more damaging to report than a ranchers deer-broken fence.
By one estimate 40% of all species in the Park are exotics. That's the way it is. Some are invasive and should resisted - scotch broom for example. Others are so integrated into their new environment that removal efforts would probably be harmful - the European honey bee for example.
One highly placed Park official recently estimated that there are 80 fallow deer per square kilometer in some areas of the Park. I know the area he was probably talking about - a corner of the Stewart ranch where fallow deer like to gather. But that's like counting the number of Rangers sitting around a conference table and extrapolating the number to 1,000 rangers per square kilometer in the Park. I have trouble trusting the intentions of people who argue this way. This isn't a college debate or a lawsuit. There are life and death consequences at stake here - as well as issues of morality. For example, ask yourself how comfortable it would be to explain the extermination of these animals to your children.
I've also heard the argument that these deer survive at the expense of our native deer. What nonsense! Our native black tails are not starving or diminishing in number. A highly respected local naturalist recently opined that the Swainson's thrush was also somehow endangered by the deer. Not being a naturalist myself I checked with the Point Reyes Bird Observatory's resident expert on this bird, who told me that the bird was "doing quite well" and its "population is stable."
So if the threats to the environment are largely unproved "potential" or "minimal," what's the real reason for the Park Service's campaign for extermination? Might it be that successfully removing an exotic species, particularly one as visible as 1,000 large deer, earns career points for those who pull it off?
Money is more likely the real reason. Exterminating these animals, instead of managing them, is probably viewed as a final solution that will save the Park service money year after year. If this is really about money let's be open about it - because there's lots of private money around to help with this. Both In Defense of Animals and Earth Island Institute, have offered to help fund various population control ideas - like contraception. And the general public has been very generous with this Park when they've been asked to help. But they have to be asked.
The Park Service has announced that the period for public comment has run out. Maybe in their minds it has. But the prospect of slaughtering these beautiful animals for unproved reasons is so emotionally charged that it is also political. We have still to see how our elected representatives will react to real public opposition and outrage.
Marin county has a long history of creatively and successfully opposing the plans of powerful private and governmental agencies. Even major projects that have passed some official deadline and been approved by boards-of-supervisors, planning commissions, state highway departments, and federal financing agencies have been completely reversed. Think of the freeway approved for the Bolinas Ridge, or the atomic power plant actual begun at Bodega Point, or the 10,000 house project in Tennessee Valley, or the huge development for Bolinas Lagoon among others.
This is not over by a long shot if we don't want it to be.
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