Deer in Japan’s Kamikochi Region Stoke Fears of Environmental Damage

Courtesy of the Environment Ministry
A Japanese deer is seen in the Kamikochi area on June 15.

MATSUMOTO, Nagano Pref. — Concerns are rising over possible damage to the natural environment in Kamikochi, a popular and scenic resort area in the Northern Alps mountain range in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, following the confirmation of Japanese deer in the area.

From this fiscal year, the Environment Ministry will enforce measures such as catching the ruminants to prevent grazing damage to alpine flora.

The deer have also been spotted at altitudes of around 2,500 meters in an area inhabited by Japanese rock ptarmigan — a designated national treasure.

The ministry has already begun to consult with relevant local governments over its plans.

Camera confirmation

According to the ministry, Japanese deer were first observed in the Kamikochi region in around 2014 and there have a growing number of eyewitness reports since.

From August to November 2021, the ministry set up 40 automatic cameras in the southern part of the Kamikochi area. As a result, at least 11 Japanese deer were photographed. In May 2022, six deer were snapped in a single picture, making it likely that the species has already settled in the region.

Plants, including wild chrysanthemum around Taisho Pond — a popular tourist draw — have exhibited traces of having been grazed by deer.

Japanese deer are known to have inhabited forests in the Northern Alps, which spread northward from Kamikochi. “It’s possible that the deer expanded their habitat to the Kamikochi area following a drop in the number of forestry industry workers, which gave rise to worsening forest conditions and a resultant drop in deer-friendly foods,” said the ministry’s Hayata Kuriki, an expert in ecosystem conservation.

Land-collapse fears

Prior to the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Kamikochi region attracted about 1.2 million tourists each year, and the area is regarded as a pristine, environmental treasure trove.

Tsukasa Okuhara, who runs the Kamikochi Nishi-ito-ya Mountain Lodge, said: “Beautiful plants such as windflowers, which many tourists come to see, may be lost. In addition, climbing paths could suffer damage, and if trees die, whole slopes could collapse. Measures need to be taken as soon as possible.”

A ministry council comprising relevant local government officials and experts in the field discussed possible measures at a meeting held in Chubusangaku National Park, which includes the Kamikochi area.

Within this fiscal year, the ministry aims to probe the deer’s biology and behavior and step up actions for their removal by setting up automatic cameras and lengthening trap-deployment periods.

The ministry also plans to prioritize the protection of alpine plant colonies in newly designated locations.

Rapid proliferation

Some within the ministry are increasing anxious about deer-related damage to alpine flora if the situation goes unaddressed.

Though there have no reports of actual damage in the Kamikochi area as yet, deer in the past wiped out colonies of large-flowered cypripedium on Mt. Kita-Arakawa-dake in the Southern Alps, a 2,698-meter-high mountain 80 to 90 kilometers from the Kamikochi area.

In the Northern Alps, Japanese rock ptarmigan inhabit locations at altitudes of around 2,000 to 2,500 meters — higher than the Kamikochi area. The birds mainly consume alpine plants such as shinanokinbai, a species of the Ranunculaceae family. It is feared that deer could damage the plants here too, as they did in the Southern Alps area.

The ministry said Japanese deer were confirmed in fiscal 2022 in areas inhabited by Japanese rock ptarmigan.

Shinshu University Prof. Shigeyuki Izumiyama, an expert in animal ecology, said, “The [deer’s] habitat zones have rapidly proliferated and we should consider as a serious issue the problems faced by the Kamikochi area. It’s necessary to quickly grasp the actual conditions through analyzing images captured by cameras and conducting tracking studies.”