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We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. On a California island, residents and preservationists are feuding over how to protect the habitat for future generations.

By Soumya Karlamangla
Photographs by Sinna Nasseri

Soumya Karlamangla and Sinna Nasseri recently spent days on Catalina talking to residents and exploring the island by foot, car, boat and golf cart.

Dec. 2, 2023

Santa Catalina Island is the crown jewel of the Channel Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Southern California that is so biodiverse 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, the 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 Dr. Dennhardt, lowering her window while driving to grab a fistful of tumbleweed-like brush growing on a Catalina hillside. These nonnative plants, she said, could create conditions akin to those that fueled the recent catastrophic fire in Maui.

The Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit that owns 88 percent 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.

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