A plan to save California’s Catalina Island? Shoot the deer.

For decades, non-native animals have ravaged rare habitats on Catalina. The proposed solution enraged local residents and animal lovers.


We explore how America defines itself place by place. On a California island, residents and conservationists are at loggerheads over how to protect the habitat for future generations.

Soumya Karlamangla and Sinna Nasseri recently spent days on Catalina talking to residents and exploring the island by foot, car, boat and golf cart.

Santa Catalina Island is the crown jewel of the Channel Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Southern California that is so biodiverse that it is often called the “Galapagos of North America.”

A craggy mountain jutting out of the sea, Catalina, as it’s known, is home to more than 60 plants and creatures nowhere else on earth. Plump quails and miniature foxes unique to the island, it races over dirt roads that wind through scrubby hills. Thick pillows of fog roll along the coast and coat the leaves of rare plants with dew. Bald eagles swoop far above the glistening Pacific.

But the habitat is suffering as much of the native flora has been ravaged by animals brought here over the past century for farming, hunting and filming.

For Lauren Dennhardt, the island’s leading conservationist, there is only one way to save Catalina for future generations: kill all the deer.

Five of the eight Channel Islands are remote controlled National Park, but Catalina, the closest to Los Angeles, had a very different existence. For more than 100 years, the island was a tourist destination, made famous by John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and legions of other Golden Age Hollywood stars who boarded steamboats to Catalina – $2.25 round trip – to to dancesunbathe and enjoy glass bottom tours.

The island’s contours were also considered prime hunting grounds, and 18 mule deer were introduced from the California forests nearly a century ago. Now 2,000 deer are mowing native plants.

This eroded the soil, depleted food supplies for other animals and, most worryingly, allowed flammable brush and grass to proliferate, said Dr. Dennhardt, rolling down the window as she drove to grab a handful of grass-like bushes growing on the hillside of Catalina Hill. These non-native plants, she said, could create conditions similar to those that fueled the recent catastrophic fire on Maui.

The Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit that owns 88 percent of the 75-square-mile island, has concluded that the only way to preserve native plants and restore the island is to get rid of the deer.

The non-profit organization, for which dr. Dennhardt senior director of conservation, she first thought about moving. But it would be almost impossible to reach a deer hiding in the ravines, and the animals often die of stress when caught. There would be similar challenges with sterilization, and yet it would take 15 years to eliminate the deer, she said.

Enter shooters. The conservancy eventually determined that butchering deer with rifles from helicopters, over seven weeks next summer, was their best hope. Although the approach sounds extreme, such projects are quite common in the field of conservation and have already been implemented in all the other Channel Islands. Worldwide, more than 1,200 eradications of invasive horses, cats, moose and other mammals on islands to strengthen fragile ecosystems.

“You don’t do these projects lightly,” said Dr. Dennhardt. “This is a last resort.”

The preserve still needs approval from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is reviewing the plan. Spokeswoman Jordan Traverso said it was too early to comment on the sharpshooter’s approach, although the department was “generally supportive of the broader habitat restoration project.”

But there was outrage at the prospect of shooting deer from the sky. Many of the 3,000 residents of Avalon, a resort on the outskirts of the conservation area, organized protests and signed petitions. Animal lovers as well as deer hunters joined the chorus.

Tourists stepping off cruise ships onto Avalon’s palm-lined boardwalk are now greeted with “Stop the Carnage” posters adorning the windows of stores selling Hawaiian shirts and sand dollar Christmas ornaments.

Longtime Avalon residents, who call themselves “Islanders,” said they felt deeply connected to the land and their way of life, taught by childhoods spent spearfishing in sparkling blue waters, camping on sandy beaches or admiring deer leaping through their school playground. One resident said her young children believe the docile animals are Santa’s reindeer.

Maneuvering his green pickup truck atop a ridge on a recent morning, Pastor Lopez, 74, slammed on the brakes as the deer ran across the road before disappearing into a dry chaparral-covered canyon. Mr. Lopez, who was born on the island, recalled that his family nicknamed his older sister the “wandering deer” because of how often she walked around the interior of the island.

“To me, deer, rattlesnakes, every living thing here is like me. I feel like we’re connected. All animals, we all share time here,” said Mr. Lopez, who is retired from his job as head of Avalon’s public works department, in a husky voice. “No one should have the right to slaughter a deer, to make that decision.”

He said the conservancy should do a better job of trimming flammable plants instead of blaming deer for their spread. Conservation officials say that this approach is not sustainable in the long term.

Some Americans may still associate Catalina with William Wrigley Jr., the longtime chewing gum magnate and owner of the Chicago Cubs. In 1919, Mr. Wrigley bought Catalina and built the attractions that initially drew people here, including the baseball field, where his team held spring training in a period of 30 years.

The island was also enough to attract young people Ronald Reagan as a radio announcer covering the Cubs. While in California, he took a film test that eventually landed him his first film role in the state he would become governor of, and was later taken to the White House.

In 1972, Mr. Wrigley’s heirs established a non-profit organization Catalina Island Conservancy, to whom they donated most of the land for preservation.

In a shallow valley surrounded by brown hills, dr. Dennhardt opened the gate to enter a lush garden, a stark contrast to the parched landscape just beyond the fence. The enclosure is a conservation project that illustrates what Catalina might look like without deer, said Dr. Dennhardt.

Visibly excited, she pinched a silver leaf from a small bush. “It’s a rare herb indeed,” holding it to his nose for a whiff of its sage scent, “but it doesn’t have to be.”

Previously, conservation killed about 8,000 goats (originally brought by Spanish missionaries in the 1820s) and 12,000 pigs (brought in for sport hunting a century later). And those animals devoured the precious plants and caused erosion. There are still about 90 native bison on the island (brought for the film in 1924) who are under birth control.

The conservancy said it has tried to manage the deer through a hunting program that kills about 200 deer a year, but it hasn’t been enough. Deer have no natural predators on the island, so their population can grow unchecked.

Although the islanders agree with the local population in hunting deer, many believe that massacring all of them is not in accordance with the peaceful Catalina. Avalon is quaint by any definition, stretching just one square mile along a cove where boats rock and are run by locals who grew up together. It is served by one convenience store and is full of golf carts due to strict new car restrictions.

While many residents civilly protested, some of the opposition turned ugly. dr. Dennhardt, who lives on the island with her family, said she received disturbing threats on social media and briefly left the island in October for her own safety. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department investigated a suspicious package that had been sent to protection.

Anonymous “Jane Doe” sent a message to Dr. To Dennhardt in an ad in the Catalina Islander newspaper: “Your pleasant demeanor is deceptive and the most cunning way to hide your black heart.”

Capt. Matthew King of the sheriff’s department said law enforcement officials have been monitoring the protests and messages, but so far haven’t felt the need to take action. Capt. King, who is based in Avalon at the department’s smallest station, said the deer controversy has caught the attention of the community in a way that would be unlikely on land.

“There’s not much to do here, so it’s true that every little thing is a big thing on this island,” he said. “This is part of LA County, but it’s the Mayberry of LA County.”

Inside the protected fenced area, dr. Dennhardt marched to the Catalina ironwood, a tree that only grows on the island. This type of tree became extinct in the rest of North America about 12,000 years ago.

“What a gift to be able to see and touch something you can’t on land,” she said, lifting her head to listen to the birds chirping in its foliage. “What we have on Catalina is this ancient California postage stamp that could easily be brought back.”

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