SANTA CATALINA ISLAND, Calif. — 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 “North America’s Galápagos.”
A rugged mountain jutting out of the sea, Catalina, as it is commonly known, is home to more than 60 plants and critters found nowhere else on earth. Plump quails and miniature foxes unique to the island scurry across the dirt roads that wind through scrubby hillsides. Thick pillows of fog roll onshore and coat the leaves of rare plants with dew. Bald eagles swoop far above the glittering Pacific.
But the habitat is suffering because much of the native flora has been ravaged by animals shipped here over the past century for ranching, hunting and filming movies.
To Lauren Dennhardt, lead conservationist on the island, there is only one way to save Catalina for future generations: Kill all the deer.
Five of the eight Channel Islands comprise a remote national park, but Catalina, the closest to Los Angeles, has had a far different existence. For more than 100 years, the island has been a tourist destination, made famous by John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and legions of other Golden Age Hollywood stars who boarded steamer ships to Catalina — $2.25 round-trip — to dance, sunbathe and delight in glass-bottomed boat tours.
The contours of the island were also seen as prime ground for hunting, and 18 mule deer from California forests were introduced nearly a century ago. Now, 2,000 deer are mowing through the native plants here.
That has eroded soil, depleted the food supply for other animals and, most alarming, allowed flammable shrubs and grasses to proliferate, said Dennhardt, lowering her window while driving to grab a fistful of tumbleweedlike brush growing on a Catalina hillside. These nonnative plants, she said, could create conditions akin to those that fueled the recent catastrophic fire in the Hawaiian island of Maui.
The Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit that owns 88% of the 75-square-mile island, has concluded that the only way to save native plants and restore the island is to get rid of the deer.
The nonprofit, for which Dennhardt is the senior director of conservation, first considered relocation. But it would be almost impossible to reach deer hiding in ravines, and the animals often die from stress when captured. There would be similar challenges with sterilization, and still it would take 15 years to eliminate the deer, she said.
Enter the sharpshooters. The conservancy ultimately determined that slaughtering the deer with rifles from helicopters, over seven weeks next summer, was their best hope. Although the approach sounds extreme, such projects are fairly common in the field of conservation and have already been carried out on all the other Channel Islands. Worldwide, more than 1,200 eradications of invasive horses, cats, elk and other mammals have occurred on islands to bolster fragile ecosystems.
“You don’t do these projects lightly,” Dennhardt said. “This is a last resort.”
The conservancy still needs approval from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is reviewing the plan. A spokesperson, Jordan Traverso, said it was premature to opine on the sharpshooter approach, although the department was “generally supportive of the broader habitat restoration project.”
But outrage has ensued over the prospect of gunning down deer from the sky. Many of the 3,000 residents of Avalon, a resort community on the outskirts of the conservancy’s land, have staged protests and signed petitions. Animal lovers as well as deer hunters have joined the chorus.
Tourists pouring out of cruise ships onto Avalon’s palm tree-lined promenade are now greeted with “Stop the slaughter” posters that adorn the windows of shops selling Hawaiian shirts and sand-dollar Christmas ornaments.
Longtime Avalon residents, who call themselves “islanders,” said they felt deeply attached to the land and their way of life, informed by childhoods spent spearfishing in sparkling-blue waters, camping on sandy beaches or admiring deer bounding 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 ridgeline on a recent morning, Pastor Lopez, 74, stepped on the brakes as a deer sprinted across the road before disappearing into a canyon covered in dry chaparral. Lopez, who was born on the island, recalled that his family nicknamed his older sister “wandering deer” because of how often she would hike the island’s interior.
“To me, the deer, rattlesnakes, every living thing here is just like me. I feel like we’re connected. All the animals, we’re all sharing time here,” Lopez, who is retired from his job as head of Avalon’s public works department, said in a gravelly voice. “Nobody should have the right to slaughter the deer, to make that decision.”
He said the conservancy should do a better job of trimming the flammable plants instead of blaming the deer for their spread. The conservancy said that approach is not sustainable in the long term.
Some Americans might still associate Catalina with William Wrigley Jr., the long-ago chewing gum magnate and owner of the Chicago Cubs. In 1919, Wrigley purchased Catalina and built the attractions that initially drew people here, including a baseball field, where his team held spring training over a span of 30 years.
The island was also enough to attract a young Ronald Reagan as a radio announcer covering the Cubs. While in California, he took a screen test that ultimately landed him his first movie role in the state where he would become governor and, later, propelled to the White House.
In 1972, Wrigley’s heirs created the nonprofit Catalina Island Conservancy, to which they donated most of the land for preservation.
In a shallow valley surrounded by brown hills, Dennhardt pushed open a gate to enter a lush garden, a stark contrast to the desiccated landscape just beyond the fencing. The enclosure is a conservancy project to illustrate how Catalina could look without deer, Dennhardt said.
Visibly excited, she pinched a silvery leaf off a small shrub. “That’s a really rare plant,” holding it to her nose for a whiff of its sage smell, “but it doesn’t have to be.”
Previously, the conservancy killed about 8,000 goats (originally brought by Spanish missionaries in the 1820s) and 12,000 pigs (brought for sport hunting a century later). Those animals, too, devoured precious plants and caused erosion. There are still about 90 nonnative bison on the island (brought for a movie in 1924) that are on birth control.
The conservancy said it has tried to manage the deer through a hunting program that has killed about 200 annually, but that has been insufficient. The deer have no natural predators on the island, so their population can grow unchecked.
Although islanders are OK with locals hunting the deer, many find massacring all of them out of step with peaceful Catalina. Avalon is by any definition quaint, just 1 square mile stretching along a cove bobbing with boats, run by locals who grew up together. It is served by a single grocery store and filled with golf carts because of a tight restriction on new cars.
While many residents have protested civilly, some of the opposition has turned ugly. Dennhardt, who lives on the island with her family, said she has received disturbing threats on social media, and briefly left the island in October for her safety. A suspicious package mailed to the conservancy was investigated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
An anonymous “Jane Doe” sent a message to Dennhardt in a Catalina Islander newspaper ad: “Your pleasant demeanor is deceptive and a most cunning way of hiding your black heart.”
Capt. Matthew King of the Sheriff’s Department said law enforcement officials have monitored the protests and messages but have not deemed it necessary to take action so far. King, who is based in Avalon at the department’s smallest station, said the deer controversy has captured the community’s attention in a way that would be unlikely on the mainland.
“There’s not a lot to do here, so the truth of the matter is that every little thing is a big deal on this island,” he said. “This is part of LA County, but it’s the Mayberry of LA County.”
Inside the protected enclosure, Dennhardt marched to the Catalina ironwood, a tree that grows only on the island. This kind of tree went extinct in the rest of North America roughly 12,000 years ago.
“What a gift to be able to see and touch something you can’t on the mainland,” she said, tilting her head up to listen to birds chirping in its leaves. “What we have on Catalina is this postage stamp of ancient California that could be easily brought back.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.