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July 2020
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By Alexa Johnson

Catalina: Nature at Its Best - Visitors to Catalina Island are virtually guaranteed the opportunity to see exciting wildlife, be that foxes, eagles, bison, or the subject of this month’s Island Naturalist: deer. Hang around the outskirts of Avalon at dawn, dusk, or really any time in between, and chances are you’ll see one of these opportunistic ungulates – the name for a class of hoofed animals, which includes bison.

In an effort to increase Island visitation through hunting, mule deer were introduced to Catalina Island in the 1920s and 1930s. From a conservation standpoint here in 2012, the introduction of non-native species to ecologically special places, like Catalina, is universally viewed as a bad idea. You simply wouldn’t be allowed to do it in this day and age. But things were different back in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

Ecologically and economically, bringing deer to Catalina has been something of a disaster. Deer were expected to attract a new wave of sport-hunters and accelerate the Island’s tourism industry. The expected hunting audience never really materialized and the Black Jack Hunting Camp was abandoned after just four years of operation.

As we mentioned last month, many of our native and endemic plants have lost the defenses of their mainland ancestors. Why waste energy producing toxins, spines, and tough leaves if there’s no threat to life or limb – or stem? The largest set of jaws any plant had to worry about before non-native herbivores were introduced was the Catalina California Ground Squirrel.  This endemic critter has a head the size of a walnut, to give you some perspective. By contrast, big non-native herbivores, like deer, are browsing machines. And since our natives have lost most of the nasty spikes or toxins over the years, our most precious plants tend to be the tastiest to deer. It’s a bad deal for our ecology.

To make matters worse, deer have virtually no predators on the Island, and not enough are hunted each year to keep the population in check. So, the deer are forever on a population boom-and-bust cycle. That means the population is destined to get far too big (as it appears to be doing now), then crash, recover and do it all over again. This cycle is tough on deer and can really devastate Catalina’s habitat. Deer browse every plant they can reach as the population peaks. Plant damage of this magnitude can have an impact on all of Catalina’s animal and plant species for years after the event.

Deer damage Catalina’s fragile ecosystems particularly badly when their populations peak, but we can see the damage in most any year. Take a close look at the native plants we’re trying to restore across the island and at the Wrigley Memorial and Botanic Garden. The second a plant grows outside its protective fence, it’s bitten back by the deer.

As the summer months form a dry season across the Island wilds, deer flock to town, where they can find succulent ornamentals, freshly watered lawns, and the occasional hand-out from a human. While feeding a hungry deer may seem like the merciful thing to do, it actually causes harm to the animal and potentially to yourself. More on that later...

Whose Problem Are They, Anyway?

Contributing to this edition were Frank Hein, Tony Summers, Tyler Dvorak and Julie King

Edited by Jerry Roberts

Issue #17 / All About Deer


Deer Origins on Catalina
A Fed Animal’s a Dead Animal
Fact or Fiction: Deer Birth Control?
Did You Know … Deer-Resistant Gardens      

Catalina Island Conservancy file photo

It is not uncommon to see large groups of deer in Avalon in the summer months. They’re drawn by water and lush plants – including those in your garden.

Missed recent issues?
Issue #1 / All About Bison

Issue #2 / All About Birds

Issue #3 / All About Plants
Issue #4 / All About Eagles
Issue #5 / All About Ravens & Crows
Issue #6 / All About Natives & Invasives  
Issue #7 / All About Rain
Issue #8 / All About Bison Roundup
Issue #9 / All About Foxes
Issue #10 / All About Weeds
Issue #11 / All About Eagle Hatchlings
Issue #12 / All About Snakes
Issue #13 / All About Diurnal Raptors
Issue #14 / All About Diurnal Raptors II
Issue #15 / All About Giants & Dwarves
Issue #16 / All About Fire Ecology



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