Deer in the headlights

Controversy stirs over the removal of deer and elk from Santa Rosa island

By Chuck Graham 08/31/2006

In a controversy that’s bound to surge toward their complete removal by 2011, the Channel Islands National Park and the Vail & Vickers Ranch on Santa Rosa Island are discussing what to do with non-native herds of Kaibab mule deer and Roosevelt elk that have been on the island since the early 20th century.

The proposed legislation by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, to continue private deer and elk hunts on the windswept islet beyond 2011 for retired and disabled veterans, was shot down by the Senate on Aug. 3.

Also putting a crimp in Hunter’s plan was a recent visit by the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), who were interested in the private hunts. They deemed Santa Rosa’s hilly terrain on old cattle roads too difficult to access, let alone hunt on.

Roosevelt elk were transported to the island in 1913 to form a breeding herd, and then supplemented by additional animals in 1930. In the late 1920s, several shipments of mule deer from the Kaibab Forest of Arizona also arrived. In 1986, the National Park Service took over the island, and in 1987, reached the first of several settlements to remove 5,000 cattle from the island and establish a timetable for deer and elk removal. According to the timetable, in 2008, deer and elk numbers begin their reduction, until complete removal by 2011.

Like ranch animals and other non-native species introduced to the Channel Islands, deer and elk have had a significant impact on the island’s landscape, denuding Santa Rosa of rare and endangered flora.

“That’s the concern with grazing animals,” said John Johnson, archeologist for the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, “that we’ll lose some of these rare plants like the buckwheat and monkey flower.”

Tim Vail’s family owned and ranched Santa Rosa from 1902 until 1987. He disagreed with the language in Hunter’s plan in the Defense Bill, which would keep Santa Rosa open to trophy hunting of deer and elk beyond 2011. However, he’s not in favor of eradicating or removing disease-free animals from their home of nearly 100 years.

“We’re not in favor of the Duncan Hunter language,” explained Vail. “Kaibab deer herds on the mainland are on a downward trend, so saving this herd has significant value.”

The removal of the cattle greatly improved Santa Rosa’s fragile ecosystem.

“The recovery of post-cattle vegetation is dramatic,” said Yvonne Menard, chief of interpretation for the Channel Islands National Park. “Water quality improved 90 percent.”

There are thousands of archeological sites scattered across Santa Rosa island, from pygmy mammoths and Chumash Indian villages and middens to the Arlington woman found in Arlington Canyon, the oldest human remains discovered in North America, more than 13,000 years old. These sites are exposed to browsing animals like elk and deer.

“These islands and their archeological sites are natural treasures,” said Johnson. “They’re in a pristine state and their deposits are intact. These sites are the most pristine sites in southern California for understanding the Pleistocene Age at the end of the last Ice Age.”

The NPS and Vail seemed to agree that they don’t want the deer and elk hunted out. Vail would like them to stay put, but he’s open to translocating them elsewhere. Where that might be is anyone’s guess at this point.

“We’re open to translocating the herds to private game farms,” he said. “The animals on Santa Rosa are disease-free. If you take them back to where they came from, then they’re left open to disease.”

The Kaibab deer on Santa Rosa are a pure breed, but Vail and the NPS disagree on whether or not the Roosevelt elk are. The NPS says they have documented proof that the makeup of the elk comes from more than one breed, certainly Rocky Mountain and possibly Tule. Vail claims there was some Rocky Mountain assimilation, but over the course of time they’ve evolved into a Roosevelt herd. This could be a determining factor if the herd is placed back on the mainland.

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