Deer Population-control plan for California island stirs cries of 'inhumane'

A wildlife management professor's proposal to help right the balance of nature in a local deer herd -- by importing coyotes -- has met with howls of protest from the deer's urban neighbors.

"Horrifying," said one letter writer. "Death control," scoffed a spokesman for an animal protection organization. The ugly specter of wild coyotes "tearing to pieces" both deer and picnickers has been fluttered aloft by local columnists and editorialists.

The state Department of Fish and Game, reeling from a week of complaints and page one attention in newspapers, withdrew the proposal to "naturally" control the population of deer on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, virtually in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. Nevertheless, the controversy and the problems that gave rise to it show no signs of abating.

And those problems are national in scope, says the plan's author, Prof. Dale McCullough of the University of California at Berkeley, a leading authority on wildlife biology and management. He called the public response to his coyote experiment a "prejudice against predators," adding that he hadn't bargained for "how primitive people's ideas still are about the natural world."

"Coyotes sounds bad," Mr. McCullough said, "and so they're against it."

The deer apparently were first brought to Angel Island in 1915 by Army personnel for hunting purposes.When the island became a state park in the 1950s, McCullough says, hunting was banned and "the deer were left without predators of any kind [human or other] and their numbers began to grow."

The herd of Columbian black-tailed deer, now numbering about 150, has periodically proliferated beyond the "carrying capacity" of the small island, denuding the vegetation, "destroying the ecosystem," and ultimately resulting in a "die-off" of diseased and starving deer, he says.

McCullough proposed a 33-month experiment featuring the introduction of about six coyotes, with an animal census and other studies to determine the success of the program and the number of coyotes necessary to keep the deer population and vegetation in "equilibrium."

It had never been tried anywhere before, he says, though similar problems with "overpopulation of herbivores" occur all over the country. And everywhere, he laments, the outcome has been the same -- "emotional" responses from the public, animal starvation, and "severe impact on natural vegetation." He cites as examples the Great Swamp deer herd in New Jersey, the Beaver Basin deer in Michigan, and the elk in Yellowstone National Park.

All concerned agree that the Angel Island deer are healthy now, but mass starvation has happened in the recent past and could again in several months, after the local "rainy season" has ended and the grasses and weeds have dried up. In 1976-77, when drought accentuated the normal dry-season problems, more than 100 deer died before the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals got permission to institute a massive feeding program amounting ultimately to 76 ,000 pounds of imported alfalfa and other nutriment.

Both McCullough and Department of Fish and Game spokesman Jack White believe the "most logical" solution to the problem is, in White's words, "selective shooting of surplus deer by a marksman, with the meat going to local charities." That prospect, raised publicly during the 1976 crisis, led to an outcry similar to that of the last few weeks. An incipient shooting program was hastily abandoned. Hence, the coyote plan.

Although McCullough bills his plan as a "natural" solution for "philosophical and esthetic" reasons -- that is, to assuage public sensibilities in this ecologically conscious area -- the study proposal falls far short of nature's own "naturalness." The experiment would use neutered coyotes, sufficiently wild to avoid tourists and garbage, quarantined, vaccinated against rabies, and strapped into radio-transmitter collars. Fawns would be fitted with "small mortality sensors." "Fetal monitors" would be used on pregnant does and "radio telemetry mortality sensors" would be attached to older deer. All these transmitters would enable professors and students, monitoring instruments deep in the bush, to keep up the progress of their population-control program.

The groups that such a program were meant to placate recoiled in horror. Virginia Handley, California coordinator of the Fund for Animals, called it "death control," not birth control, and accused the Fish and Game Department of sending up a "smokescreen" to cover its true purpose: implementation of a "shooting solution" after a predictable public outcry against the "brutality" of coyotes. She called for research into contraception and other ways of controlling such populations or removal of the present deer to a "protected situation" on the mainland. Handley claimed "adoption" had worked with similar animal populations elsewhere in the country, and she referred specifically to the wild burros and horses captured in the Grand Canyon.

Richard Avanzino, president of the SPCA in San Francisco, has offered the financial resources of his organization for any "merciful, compassionate, humane" solution. He said the deer should be able to "live out their lives in a normal environment," by which he most certainly did not have in mind the "natural environment" McCullough had suggested. The SPCA president is willing to consider a new "artificial" feeding program or resettlement of the herd of sterilization.

Although Avanzino is against "ever taking the lives of beautiful, healthy creatures in any circumstances," he would support removal of the deer, if necessary, to a wild area replete with its own predators. "Wildlife," he argues , "belong in the wild, and these deer are survivors" with "the instinct to live."

Asked how this situation "in the wild" would differ substantially from the plan to introduce natural predators on Angel Island, Avanzino replied that "animals should be given a Chancem for life," which, he said, they couldn't be given on a one-mile island with six "introduced" predators.

McCullough acknowledges that one of his motivations in introducing the coyote plan had been to "break out of the past pattern" and seek reasonable responses and alternatives. "It was a very good proposal," the professor insists, with a wistful misture of professional pride and nostalgia, "but it didn't get a fair hearing, and in the circumstances probably couldn't have got one."

So far, says McCullough, shooting is the only alternative that has "worked." He adds: "Experts marksmen could take care of the problem overnight with minimal cost and impact on the environment." He predicts that the rejection of his experiment will be followed by a succession of alternatives "until one works or we come back to shooting, the most reasonable solution." McCullough, however, is not certain that after two weeks under public attack he himself "wants to be involved in that process any further."

The alternatives suggested so far are not popular among experts in the field. Local veterinarian James Harris says birth control is both too expensive and unworkable. He and other experts say removal to the mainland would involve less chance of survival than coexistence with coyotes on the island. Hazards of "the wild" today, he notes, include cars and dog packs.As for adoption, Harris warns that deer are dangerous and "untrustworthy," and "no one should ever own or keep an adult deer."

Of McCullough's plan, Harris asks succinctly, "Which is more humane, starvation or natural thinning?"

The Sierra Club, says regional vice-president Mark Palmer, agrees with humane societies in opposing shooting. Palmer says shooting is not a "socially acceptable" way of manipulating herd size, and he is against "shooting something to save it."

Palmer, however, parts company with the animal protection groups in endorsing McCullough's "innovative" coyote plan, an idea he claims to have advanced several years ago. Palmer accuses the Fish and Game Department of "chickening out too soon" on McCullough's plan and pleads for more hearings, public education, and study.

Palmer says he endorses any "natural process" on the island, even if it means individual deer would starve.

With powerful lobbyists andpublic figures split so many ways, and the coyote plan definitely spiked, what happens now?

Fish and Game's White says his department will go through with McCullough's preliminary plan for an island-wide deer census. Meantime, although he doesn't consider contraception and resettlement "practical solutions," his department will look at any formal plan advanced by the SPCA or anyone else -- "in writing."

The final irony is that any solution -- "natural" or otherwise -- would be subject to a most unnatural process of delay involving hearings by the State Department of Parks (which manages the land) and the Department of Fish and Game (which protects and manages the wildlife), as well as, perhaps, another environmental impact report to satisfy the requirements of state law. In the meantime, the deer may again be dying of starvation, an out come no one wants.

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