Addressing the Deer problem in Palo Alto

Douglas B. Moran

July 2004

The May 17th (2004) killing of a mountain lion triggered belated reporting of deer moving deeper into Palo Alto. I live in Barron Park neighborhood and, starting last winter, deer have been routinely seen at dawn—a normal feeding time—in the areas just east of Foothill Expressway. Starting in May, they have been seen repeatedly as close as a block from El Camino, including three times during daylight hours.

The initial controversies involving deer are likely to relate to traffic. Current procedures are too slow and cumbersome for the predictable problems: Collisions with deer—unlike those with pedestrians and bicyclists—typically inflict substantial damage to speeding autos.

Education campaigns are the routine first step, but having self-selected deer wear slogans such as "I look before I leap" have not proven successful.

Proposals to post "Deer Crossing" signs at trouble spots will generate opposition from multiple groups. Adjacent homeowners will worry that highlighting the "deer problem" will harm their property values. People in nearby neighborhoods will object because it could encourage drivers to avoid those areas, with that traffic being diverted onto their streets. Both these groups will cite the lack of formal criteria for determining whether a sign is warranted as justifying indefinite delay. Others will oppose the signs on philosophical grounds that signs do nothing to address what they see as the real problem: that all streets need to be made safe for deer. Similar groups will argue that such signs infringe upon the rights of deer, implicitly limiting them to only the designated crossing spots.

Hostility toward deer is very real and pervasive. "Speciesism" (aka Bio-bigotry) is so acceptable that the mainstream media routinely carries advice on how to keep deer out of your neighborhood—it is not just in books on gardening and landscaping, but in magazines, newspapers and even on TV.

People advocating acceptance of deer will label their opponents as NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard). This is an outrageous misrepresentation - those opponents are typically just as concerned, if not more so, about their front yards.

Fear mongering is a common tactic to justify these attitudes. The actions of a relative few are used to brand all deer as inherently dangerous (example: "Deer: The most dangerous wild animal in the US"). Deer are also 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.

Deer show a marked preference for residential neighborhoods with larger lots, and this represents a significant challenge for Palo Alto's Zoning and Land Use policies. These rules specify maximum densities for humans and domestic animals, but are silent on wild animals. With the city's Zoning Ordinance Update process nearing completion, there is little opportunity to ruminate on this. Currently a whole herd of deer could move into a neighborhood without preparing the EIR (Environmental Impact Report) that would be required for any analogous change.

Decisions on deer populations have unpredictable consequences when it comes to regional and state agencies. On one hand, attempting to exclude deer could create pressure from cities such as Woodside, Portola Valley and Los Altos Hills: They could claim that they have a disproportionately high deer-to-garden ratio and insist that Palo Alto provide its "fair share" of deer habitat. On the other hand, Sacramento often chooses the current situation as a baseline and then requires annual percentage expansion. If this happens, allowing more deer into Palo Alto now could create an artificially high baseline and the consequent disproportionate burden on Palo Alto in future years. Does Palo Alto need a "Deer Registry"—not to be confused with a Deer License—to get the data needed to understand this problem?

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?

Unpublished Guest Opinion - submitted to Palo Alto Weekly, but bumped by other submissions.
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