“Biologic genocide” almost finished Channel Islands’ top predator
SANTA CRUZ ISLAND, California––U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe on August 11, 2016 personally visited Channel Island National Park to announce that the Channel Islands fox, native to Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Cruz islands, off the southern California coast, are no longer federally recognized as endangered.
Said Ashe, to applause led by National Park Service director Jon Jarvis and U.S. Representative Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), “This is an unfortunately rare occasion when we can remove something from the endangered species list.”
Noted Alicia Chiang of Associated Press, “The foxes are three of just 37 species to come off the list” in the 43 years since the U.S. Endangered Species Act has existed.
The assembled dignitaries, including also representatives of the Nature Conservancy, patted themselves on the back for the Channel Islands fox being officially recovered just 12 years after the diminutive fox was belatedly granted endangered species status, having declined to the verge of extinction.
As of 2000, wrote Chiang, “There were only 15 foxes each on San Miguel and Santa Rosa islands and 55 foxes on Santa Cruz Island.”
Now there are an estimated 700 foxes on San Miguel Island, 1,200 on Santa Rosa Island, and 2,100 on Santa Cruz Island.
What neither Ashe nor anyone else present mentioned was that the Channel Islands fox was endangered in the first place entirely because of the murderous intolerance of the Nature Conservancy and National Park Service toward “non-native” species.
Moreover, the Channel Islands fox recovered only through intensive captive breeding. Captive-bred foxes were returned to the islands from 2003 to 2008, after killing other animals in the name of protecting foxes had spectacularly failed.
The near loss of the Channel Island fox actually started, retired Channel Islands National Park superintendent Tim J. Setnicka admitted in a March 2005 denunciation of “systematic biologic genocide” published by the Santa Barbara News Press, when The Nature Conservancy and National Park Service decided in 1972 to try to exterminate all non-native species who inhabited the islands.
Wild turkeys just introduced
Among the targeted species were wild turkeys, who had just been introduced that year, with the intention of attracting more sport hunters to the islands.
The Channel Islands at the time hosted thousands of feral pigs, sheep, goats, horses, burros, deer, and bison, legacies of about 200 years of failed or otherwise abandoned farming ventures.
“In the late 1980s,” Setnicka wrote, “seeing an island fox was a daily occurrence, easier than seeing a pig on Santa Rosa Island.”
Fox population soared
Feasting on the carcasses of hoofed animals shot by the thousands over more than 25 years in the name of protecting biodiversity, the fox population soared to a probable all-time high.
“But their numbers mysteriously declined,” Setnicka recounted. “In the mid-1990s it was learned their decline was due to an influx of golden eagles.”
The native bald eagles, along with many other avian predators, had at the time become scarce because of accumulations of the pesticide DDT in their food chain. After the Environmental Protection Agency restricted DDT use in 1972, bald eagles gradually recovered, but were not taken off the federal endangered species list until 1995, and remained “threatened” until 2007.
Stench of carrion
Golden eagles, meanwhile, were almost certainly drawn to the islands from the mainland by the stench of the carrion that fed the foxes. When the carrion ran out, they attacked the pigs and foxes.
“To help sell fox restoration, for which we had no money, we came up with the media spin that one of the main reasons golden eagles reside on park islands was because of pigs,” Setnicka admitted. “This would help vilify the pigs and help support the pig removal project.”
“We didn’t really remind folks that by 1991 we had shot all the pigs on Santa Rosa Island, so there were no pigs for eagles to eat,” Setnicka continued. “Of course the golden eagles eat pigs, but” as the carrion supply dwindled, “they ate many more foxes, which were easier for them to catch.
Shot golden eagles?
“A successful fox [recovery] plan also required the ‘removal’ of golden eagles,” Setnicka acknowledged. “We proposed doing this first by capturing them and then, if we couldn’t capture them all, by shooting them. Shooting them was not emphasized in the media spin. We anticipated the huge amount of public heat that shooting eagles would cause. Unfortunately, golden eagles were much smarter and more elusive than we first thought. So the final plan was to shoot golden eagles from the ground, and with approval, from a helicopter. As far as I know [this] never was really tried, but who knows for sure?”
Media releases touting the Channel Island fox recovery mentioned only that “The last golden eagle was relocated from Santa Cruz in 2006.”
“Killing one species to save another”
A globally recognized search-and-rescue expert, Setnicka developed his skills during approximately 30 years of killing non-native species in the Channel Islands. He headed the effort from 1996 to 2003.
“The Park Service reassigned Setnicka to other duties before his retirement, the News Press said.
Residing in nearby Ojai ever since, Setnicka was apparently brought to catharsis after viewing a slide show of the history of Channel Islands National Park at a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the official park opening.
“A large portion of the park’s history revolved around killing one species to save another,” Setnicka saw.
Goats & Richard Nixon
Efforts to eradicate non-native animals from the California coastal islands appear to have begun on San Clemente Island, south of Channel Islands National Park. Beginning in 1972, U.S. Navy personnel shot 27,000 goats on San Clemente Island, not to be confused with the former summer residence of then-U.S. President Richard Nixon, nearby on the mainland, before killing the last goat in 1990.
Critical of the slow pace of the Navy extermination program, the National Park Service and Nature Conservancy were much more aggressive in the Channel Islands.
“Even before the park was established, park staff began shooting all the abandoned mules and donkeys on San Miguel Island,” Setnicka recalled. “In 1976, then-Superintendent Bill Ehorn personally finished the eradication program by shooting the last pregnant jenny. On Santa Barbara Island, Bill and staff quietly shot the last hare in 1979. In the 1980s, Mac Shaver,” Ehorn’s successor, “completed the Santa Rosa Island pig eradication program,” Setnicka continued.
“More than 1,200 pigs were killed, first by shotgunning from a helicopter, then by hunting them on the ground using vehicles and dogs. Some opposition developed,” Setnicka said, mentioning the late Fund for Animals founder Cleveland Amory, “but a couple of controlled five-hour media trips to the island to look at pig-damaged vegetation took media interest away from the issue.”
Black Beauty Ranch
Amory in 1981 started the Black Beauty Ranch sanctuary, near Tyler, Texas, to take in about 4,000 animals evacuated from San Clemente and Santa Rosa Islands, plus feral burros whom the National Park Service was shooting at the Grand Canyon. The Black Beauty Ranch is now operated by the Humane Society of the U.S., which absorbed the Fund for Animals through merger at the end of 2004.
Amory evacuated animals for three years, but “could not muster his troops in time to intercede and challenge the program,” Setnicka remembered, largely because no film existed of the massacres.
“Never allowed media to film”
“We never allowed the media to film the hunting. Safety reasons were always given as the reason for denial of their requests,” Setnicka stated. “The real reason was that we wanted to avoid images of the ugliness of the hunt.”
Setnicka admitted his own role in concealing animal massacres.
“Unknown to the public, in about 1998 I authorized the clandestine intermittent killing of problem pigs [on Santa Cruz Island] by signing a National Environmental Policy Act document called a Categorical Exclusion,” explained Setnicka.
“Shot or knifed in the trap”
“Pigs were either individually shot when no one was around, or were trapped first, and shot or knifed in the trap, Setnicka said. “But we wanted to remove all pigs on an island-wide basis. How to do that?”
Even without film, word of the killing upset the public whenever it leaked out.
“Because of the National Park Service record of shooting mules, rabbits and pigs, plus The Nature Conservancy’s program of shooting more than 36,000 sheep on their portion of Santa Cruz Island in the 1980s,” Setinicka recounted, “rumors quickly spread [in the early 1990s] that the Park Service was going to shoot the remaining 9,000 sheep and 30 abandoned horses.
Opposition brought change of plan
“If we could have gotten away with shooting all the sheep and horses, we would have,” Setnicka admitted. “Opposition quickly erased thoughts of such action. We changed plans and began trapping and transporting.”
About 2,500 sheep, poultry, horses, and burros were sent to the mainland by 1997.
“We had to fight off legislation,” Setnicka recalled, “which might have allowed a Heritage Horse Herd on Santa Cruz Island.”
The Channel Islands killings of hooved stock were especially unpopular with rare breed conservators. Some of the Channel Islands hooved species had survived there since 1720, representing genetic lines that long ago vanished from commercial agriculture. But rare breed conservators are few, and allowing them to take some specimen animals largely quelled their criticism.
By 1999 the policy of exterminating non-native animals could also have been recognized as a threat to endangered and threatened wildlife––if anyone had looked. The Channel Islands fox, in particular, was already scarce.
Instead, The Nature Conservancy and National Park Service continued to try to kill their way out of losing the Channel Islands fox.
Last of the turkeys
As of 2006, two years after the Channel Islands fox was at last placed on the federal endangered species list, and a year after the pig purge finally ended, with no more pigs left, about 300 wild turkeys remained on Santa Cruz Island, within Channel Islands National Park. The Nature Conservancy hired professional hunters to kill the last of the turkeys too.
Nature Conservancy spokesperson Julie Benson insisted to Associated Press that “the kills are necessary because turkeys provide prey for golden eagles.
“The eagles are attracted to the island, where they also kill the endangered foxes,” Benson explained. “The island pigs kept the turkeys in check by eating their eggs and competing with them for food. With nearly all of the pigs gone, the turkey population boomed.”
Is anyone reminded of “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly?”
Or “This is the house that Jack built?”