An animal advocacy group has temporarily halted a $700,000 National Park Service plan to rid Anacapa Island of thousands of black rats that officials say are threatening survival of a rare bird species.
In a letter sent to the park service Monday, lawyers for New York-based Fund for Animals argued that the plan to drop poison pellets from helicopters over Anacapa, an island off the Ventura County coast, would unintentionally kill migratory birds, a violation of federal law.
The bait drop, scheduled for Thursday, was put on hold while the agency's attorneys review the group's charges, said Kate Faulkner, chief of natural resources management for Channel Islands National Park. She also cited weather conditions for the suspension; the poison food pellets would not work without at least five rain-free days.
Park service officials maintain that the large-scale eradication, which would take place in phases over two years, is necessary to save the rare Xantus' murrelet from extinction. The rats, with their pin-sharp teeth, prey on the island-nesting birds' eggs.
But attorneys for Fund for Animals and local environmentalists say the effort, however needed, should not be done at the expense of other birds and wildlife.
"It is a tremendous victory," Scarlet Newton, spokeswoman for the Ventura County-based Channel Islands Animal Protection Assn., said of the delay. "We consider this a huge concession."
In the works for about five years, the rat eradication plan is one of many coastal restoration efforts funded by a $9.1-million settlement with BP America stemming from the 1990 American Trader oil spill off Huntington Beach.
A council representing government agencies affected by the spill--which killed thousands of seabirds--approved the park service's project, including a final environmental report last November. The funding has no specific expiration date, but the bait drop must take place in the fall when few birds are nesting on the island.
The project is part of an ongoing effort to return the national park to its native state by removing nonnative interlopers such as sheep, burros, pigs and golden eagles.
While most environmentalists agree with the goal, some are opposed to a method they call extreme.
The grain pellets, poisoned with the highly toxic pesticide Brodifacoum, will be eaten not only by the rats but by the native deer mice--unique to Channel Islands National Park, Newton said.
Also of concern is the island's population of birds that would prey on the dead rats and mice, and therefore could also fall victim to the poison.
Park officials acknowledge the bait drop's side effects, but said they would be offset by various planned measures such as the relocation of several predatory birds and the capture of a group of deer mice, which would be returned to the island when the poisoning program is finished.
"The science is on our side, and we've done our homework," Faulkner said.
But those answers do not satisfy the environmentalists now fighting the project.
"The oil spill killed a couple thousand birds, and I wouldn't be shocked if what they're doing with the money from it will kill more," said Jonathan Lovvorn, a Washington, D.C., attorney for the Fund for Animals.
Killing any species of bird protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act requires a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which the park service has not yet acquired, Lovvorn said.
In delaying the bait drop, agency officials also agreed to give attorneys for the Fund for Animals 72 hours notice if they decide to move ahead with it.
Lovvorn said the group would use that time to file an injunction in federal court.