Foothills’ sprawl hurting deer

The herds of deer that migrate through Butte County’s foothills every year searching for food are taking a hit, a state biologist said last week, and urban sprawl is the cause.

Butte County’s General Plan is hopelessly out of date, Henry Lomeli, who works for the Department of Fish and Game, said at the May 24 meeting of the Butte County Resource Conservation District, and it’s affecting the deer.

“The real issue is zoning,” he said. “The current zoning laws date back to the early 1980s and are in need of an update.”

Indeed, Butte County’s current General Plan was crafted in 1984, and although there was an effort by county supervisors back then to protect the three known migrating deer herds, its own commissioned study never made it into the General Plan.

Back then, however, not as many people lived in the foothills. Now they’ve become an invasive species, upsetting not only deer migration routes, but also the habitats of countless other animals.

Many residents understand this. New landowners learn that lots are usually sold in 20- or 40-acre minimums, depending on whether the property is located in a “winter herd area” (20 acres) or designated as “critical winter range” (40 acres).

A deer traversing 40 acres with just one house on it sounds easy enough, but the problem is more complex than that. “Migratory deer routes are along ridges,” said Lomeli, “the same place people build their homes to take advantage of views. It’s had a devastating effect.”

To complicate matters further, with the recent boom in human population came the urge to subdivide. Many residents were told that subdividing to five-acre lots on their property was permissible. To the county under the 1984 General Plan, maybe it was; but to the state agencies called upon to protect native plants and animals, no.

Many residents go to Butte County’s Department of Development Services believing they can subdivide or build additional structures, only to be told that permits will not be forthcoming. Special exemptions are needed from the state.

“I receive three or four calls a week,” said Lomeli, “from people who want exemptions and permits to get around their zoning fix. You have to understand, Fish and Game is not in business to subdivide property. We exist to protect the very migration routes that people want to build on. This could all be fixed, if the zoning laws were made clearer.”

May 23, the Butte County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a comprehensive rewrite of the county’s General Plan and zoning ordinances. The update includes a timeline that commissions a deer study to determine which migration routes deer are more likely to use.

“What we’re looking for is a strategic approach,” say Tim Snellings, the new director of Development Services, “a strategy for accommodating the current deer herds with the increased pressure man places on their habitats.”

The “ground choosing” study, as it is called now, will look at the most likely migration routes deer will follow. Once they’re identified, the county Planning Division will then generate more specific maps for the Board of Supervisors to consider.

Snellings said vital migratory routes will be placed in no-build zones, while certain areas currently off-limits will be targeted for further development.