Deer in Palo Alto: A problem too long ignored
by Douglas B. Moran
14 May 2008 (update of May 2004 document)

Intrusions by deer deep into Palo Alto have become larger and more frequent. For example, in my neighborhood - Barron Park - deer have become established along the Matadero Creek corridor and have been repeatedly seen as close as two blocks from El Camino during daylight hours. Yet, the City has made no effort to assess, much less handle, this developing problem.

The following comments are based upon 15 years of experience with the Palo Alto Process.

As with many issues in Palo Alto, the initial controversies are likely to be related to traffic, and in this case traffic safety. In collisions, deer - unlike pedestrians and bicyclists - typically inflict substantial damage to speeding vehicles. But current City procedures are too slow and cumbersome for timely responses to this predictable problem.

The City's typical first step for a traffic problem is an education campaign, but having self-selected deer wear slogans such as "I look before I leap" has not proven successful.

Proposals to post "Deer Crossing" signs at trouble spots will generate widespread opposition. Nearby homeowners will worry that their property values will be harmed by highlighting the "deer problem." Nearby neighborhoods will fear that traffic will increase on their streets as drivers try to avoid the marked problem areas. These groups will cite the lack of formal criteria for determining whether a sign is warranted as justifying indefinite delay. Still others will oppose the signs on the basis that spot treatments reduce the pressure to address the real problem, that is, that all streets should be made safe for deer. Some will take this further and argue that such signs trample upon the rights of deer, implicitly limiting them to only the designated crossing spots, and thereby making unmarked locations even more dangerous.

Deer also present a challenge for Palo Alto's zoning and land use policies. These specify maximum densities for humans and domestic animals, but are silent on wild animals. Hence, a whole herd of deer could move into a neighborhood without preparing an EIR (Environmental Impact Report) that would be required for any analogous change of that size. The upcoming revision of the City's Comprehensive Plan would provide an opportunity to ruminate on this, but this important topic has not been included.

People concerned about the impacts of increasing deer populations will be derided as NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard). This is an outrageous misrepresentation - they are typically as concerned, if not more so, about their front yards.

The position that deer should be removed from the city will find widespread support because hostility toward deer is very real and pervasive. Advice on how to keep deer out of your yard and neighborhood appears in books from a wide range of mainstream publishers, in major newspapers, in syndicated TV shows and even occasionally on network TV.

Fear mongering is a too common tactic to justify these attitudes, with the actions of a relative few are used to brand all deer as inherently dangerous. For example, see the previous posting about deer as the most dangerous wild animal by Felix Sylvester Palmer (whose name suggests he is a housecat writing in support of his mountain lion brethren).

The City Council will task the Human Relations Commission (HRC) with addressing these attitudes. The HRC will object, claiming that is agenda is already overfull of more important tasks. In the end, they will likely hold a few meetings and recommend a mediation process. Some advocates for the deer will state that while they don't support unlimited movement of deer into Palo Alto, that they oppose any and all attempts to impose limits as inherently discriminatory. Other advocates will state that Palo Alto is such a rich community that it should spend whatever it takes to ensure than any deer that want to live here can.

Deer are blamed for the increasing population of mountain lions, and for enticing young, naive lions to enter populated areas. This exacerbates existing tensions about local treatment of homeless mountain lions. These lions are commonly referred to as "transients" to gloss over the fact that they are children of local lions and are being forced out of the area by the scandalous unavailability of suitable home ranges.

Any decision to remove deer from the city must take into account that, at some point, cities west of 280 are likely to protest to regional or state authorities that they have a disproportionately high deer-to-garden ratio, and that other cities should be required to provide their "fair share" of deer habitat.

If Palo Alto fails to prepare for this obvious eventuality, we may wind up being forced to provide more than our fair share of habitat. For example, many of the deer spotted in neighboring cities may in fact be residents of Palo Alto's Foothill Park and Arastradero Preserve who occasionally venture into those cities for their fine dining opportunities. Palo Alto has been reluctant to establish licensing programs, but this would be the best way to collect the necessary data.

The issue of deer in Palo Alto is complex and multifaceted and inevitably controversial. Why wait for a crisis to make ill-considered decisions when we can start today?

Douglas Moran