Local environmentalists and animal activists will try to change laws that allowed a fur trapper to kill more than 350 animals on private ranchland bordering the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
State Fish and Game Department officials said last week that they have no evidence that the animals were trapped illegally last season, but they are investigating the possibility of trespassing. Officials said they are trying to determine whether the hunter, Steve Clark, set his traps on a private ranch without permission from the landowner.
Conservationists and animal activists in Los Angeles and Ventura counties are outraged that the licensed commercial trapper was able to set his traps just across the boundary from federal parkland that has been designated a wildlife corridor. They called the law protecting the trapper "obscene" and suggested that it be changed to protect animals in the area.
"Trappers don't belong in the Santa Monica Mountains," said Dee Akemon, an animal activist from Agoura. "The fish and game people talk about protecting the wide-open spaces, but you find that their definition is very narrow in cases like this. The whole thing is outrageous."
Akemon said she is trying to form a coalition of conservationists to lobby state and federal park authorities and local congressmen to sponsor legislation that would prohibit animal trapping throughout the Santa Monica Mountains. She said she has already written Gov. George Deukmejian's office about the problem and is trying to enlist the support of other state agencies involved in parkland acquisition and park use permits.
"We're going to do all we can to change the policies," she said. "Clearly, something needs to be done."
The trapping took place on two large ranches next to the Cheeseboro Canyon preserve, part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, in an area straddling the border of Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The trapper reported taking 112 coyotes, 80 gray foxes, 60 bobcats, 100 skunks and 9 raccoons on the land near the federal preserve in Agoura between Thanksgiving and the end of January.
Threat to Livestock
Fish and game officials said at a meeting last Monday night that they are investigating whether Clark trespassed on the property by not getting proper permission from the ranch owners, H. F. Ahmanson & Co. Another Agoura rancher confirmed that he gave the 38-year-old trapper access to thousands of acres he leases because the coyotes and bobcats have been preying on his cattle, sheep and newborn lambs.
"He appears to have worked within the law," said Paul Rose, a wildlife resource specialist with the National Park Service. "Once the animals step across the boundary (from federal park to private land), they're fair game."
Concerned park users have complained about the trapping, which they believe could jeopardize the wildlife population. However, fish and game biologists say the species in the area are not endangered because they reproduce faster than they are killed.
Two weeks ago, The Times reported that the owners of the Ahmanson Ranch said they did not authorize trapping on their property and would not have approved it if they had been asked. Their complaints prompted state authorities to launch their investigation.
In a telephone interview, Clark, the trapper, said that most of the animals were trapped immediately west of Cheeseboro Canyon on the Jordan Ranch, owned by entertainer Bob Hope, and that most of the rest were caught on the Ahmanson property on the eastern side of the park.
Hank Heeber III, who manages the Jordan Ranch, said he authorized the 38-year-old commercial trapper from Bangor, in Northern California, to catch and kill the animals because they were preying on livestock and sheep at the ranch. Clark said Heeber told him he had secured verbal permission from the Ahmanson property owners to trap on their property, although he acknowledged that he was aware the law requires such approval to be in writing.
But Clark's story was rebutted by Ahmanson Ranch representatives, who said they were "horrified" when they heard about the animal killings.
"The whole thing is very disturbing," said Elizabeth Wiechec, executive director of the Mountains Restoration Trust, an agency that preserves land in the Santa Monica Mountains. "As soon as the animals cross over the boundary, they can be killed. For $40 (the price of a trapping license), you are buying the right to destroy those animals."
John Hernandez, state fish and game warden for northern Los Angeles County, said trapping has been going on for years in the mountains. The only reason this case has gained notoriety, he said, is because people are only now finding out that trapping in the mountains is legal.
"As long as you have a trapping permit and written permission, it's legal," he said. "We haven't had any reported trapping violations in at least five years."