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The State

Navy Sets Its Sights on Tiny Bird's Island Home

Military: The service has worked to save San Clemente's shrike but says it needs to expand its exercise range.

July 21, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN CLEMENTE ISLAND — On this sun-scorched, barren patch of land 78 miles from San Diego, the Navy has been engaged on two fronts for more than a decade: training for armed conflicts abroad and trying to save an endangered bird at home.

Many of the West Coast-based Marines, sailors, pilots and Navy SEALs who were key to the quick knockdown of the Taliban government in Afghanistan trained on this island.

At the same time, the Navy has been funding and overseeing a $2-million-per-year program of captive breeding and habitat protection for the tiny loggerhead shrike. Thanks to the combined efforts of the Navy and the San Diego Zoo, the little bird, once on the brink of extinction, has been experiencing a population explosion.

But now the two missions are coming into conflict as the Navy says it is feeling pressure to expand bombing and training into areas favored by the birds.

The Navy says it must respond to increased demands from all branches of the military since Sept. 11.

The birds, however, are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Training on the island has increased 25% since the terrorist attacks on America. The Department of Defense broke ground last week on a $21-million simulated U.S. embassy compound to train troops in rescuing Americans trapped in war zones.

And with the planned closing in 2003 of the controversy-plagued bombing range on the island of Vieques, in the Caribbean, San Clemente Island will become the Navy's last ship-to-shore live-fire range.

"Everything you need to go into combat can be practiced on this range," said Tom Soden, a former Marine who serves as range manager at the island's China Point site. "This is one-stop shopping for Naval warfare."

The "shopping" is not unrestricted. During the shrike's breeding season--from February to August--the Navy can use the China Point bombardment range only three days a week. Restrictions are also imposed because of the danger of wildfires. Although the Navy has been able to overcome these restrictions in the past, officials say the increased demand for training is shrinking its "work-around" flexibility.

"We feel we're running a marathon but there is no finish line," said Capt. David R. Landon, commanding officer of the Coronado Naval Base, which has jurisdiction over San Clemente Island.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is assessing the Navy's shrike program and preparing a recovery plan for the bird that could give the military more room to maneuver. The plan could be ready for public comment by September.

It could be the first step toward changing the shrike's status from endangered to merely threatened. That would allow the Navy greater freedom to use the island, even if it meant that some shrikes may be killed.

"The Navy's shrike program is going along well," said Jane ,Hendron, spokeswoman for the Carlsbad office of the wildlife service, although she added that it is too early to determine what the recovery plan will recommend.

Hendron noted that, even without a recommendation to alter the shrike's protected status, the Navy could request an exemption from some of the restrictions imposed by the Endangered Species Act. But Navy officials are reluctant to seek an exemption because it would require periodic renewal and hinder long-term planning.

The Navy would like to see the shrike removed from endangered species protection altogether by 2005 and is optimistic that the growing bird population will justify that.

Once flourishing on the island, the small black-and-gray songbirds were devastated by the presence of thousands of goats that foraged on the island's vegetation--a holdover from the days when the island was a goat, sheep and cattle ranch.

After the goats were shot and trapped--amid much protest from animal-rights activists--aerial bombardment by the military continued to thin the shrike population.

Although the island is 21 miles long by 1.5 miles to 4 miles wide, one of the shrike's favorite nesting grounds is in the gullies near the China Point range. Although there are other species of the bird, this subspecies ofshrike lives only on San Clemente Island.

As recently as 1998, only 13 loggerhead shrikes remained. Today, with captive-breeding and bombardment restrictions, the island boasts 123 shrikes in the wild and 64 in breeding pens.

Environmental groups are impressed by the shrike's progress, but not enough to support the Navy's bid to "downlist" it, even if the current population trend continues.

"It's not a matter of numbers," said Kieran Suckling, a bird specialist with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. He said the shrike's continued recovery would depend on habitat protection by the Navy and on the military's willingness to fend off predators.

"Shrikes are pretty dependent on human interaction," Suckling said. "Regardless of numbers, you can't say a population is safe if they're that dependent."

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