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Plans Made to Rid Island of Pigs

Wildlife: Park service officials say the eradication of the nonnative swine is key to restoring land to its natural state.

September 17, 2002|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thousands of wild pigs that have been uprooting environmentally sensitive land on Santa Cruz Island will be methodically hunted and shot over the next six years under a National Park Service plan.

Eradicating the nonnative pigs, as outlined in an environmental document released this month, is a major step in a broader effort to restore Santa Cruz Island to its natural state, officials said.

"Removing the pigs is an important piece to that big picture," said Kate Faulkner, chief of natural resources management for Channel Islands National Park.

Not only do the hairy, scruffy swine dig up and devour the bulbous roots of many rare and endangered plant species, they also have damaged nearly all of the 687 identified archeological sites on the island--some that include 8,000-year-old Chumash artifacts.

More indirectly, the pigs have contributed to the decline of the island fox, a species that is unique to Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands off the Ventura County coast. Pigs serve as a food source for interloping golden eagles, which then supplement their diets with the diminutive island fox, Faulkner said.

The omnivorous pigs also compete with the fox for food.

"The pigs will feed on almost anything they can get a hold of," Faulkner said. "Because they reproduce very rapidly, the populations tend to rise above the resources available."

Additionally, the animals have been blamed for spreading seeds of the invasive fennel plant, which covers more than 10% of the island. Fennel provides cover for the pigs and crowds out endangered plant species.

In the last century, ranching, hunting and other human enterprises have threatened to undermine the natural and cultural resources on the island, the largest in the chain that makes up Channel Islands National Park off the Ventura County coast.

Domestic pigs were introduced to the island by a Santa Barbara rancher in the mid-1800s, Faulkner said. The feral descendants are smaller, hairier and occasionally tusked. They can number as many as 4,000 when food is plentiful, biologists say.

Park service officials have been developing a plan to kill the pigs for about two years, in cooperation with the Nature Conservancy, which owns 75% of Santa Cruz Island. The eradication is part of a process that includes trapping golden eagles that prey on the pigs, bringing back native bald eagles and launching a captive breeding program for the island fox.

Four alternatives for eliminating the pigs were explored in the environmental study. The option preferred by the park service calls for dividing the 65,000-acre island into six hunting zones, separated by 45 miles of chain-link fence.

An outside contractor will be hired to hunt and shoot the pigs zone by zone, until they are eradicated, Faulkner said. The fences will prevent the pigs from moving into a zone that already has been cleared. Hunters will be aided by walk-in traps placed in each zone.

She said the method was effective on Santa Rosa Island during a pig-eradication project about 10 years ago.

Fencing the island will cost about $2 million, Faulkner said, with an eradication contract likely costing an additional $4 million to $5 million. Officials hope to begin hunting this spring.

Some animal-rights advocates are appalled by the process.

Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the New York-based Fund for Animals, said there are more humane ways to kill feral pigs than by catching them in traps and shooting them.

"The National Park Service simply has a knee-jerk reaction to any species they consider not native," said Markarian, who sued the park service last year over its plan to rid Anacapa Island of black rats. "It's an agencywide vendetta against exotic animals."

According to the park service report, officials studied alternatives such as death by lethal injection or the introduction of swine diseases, but none were found as effective as "a well-placed gunshot."

"These other methods could also inflict more pain and suffering to the pigs," the report said.

*

FYI

The restoration plan is available for review here:

* Online at the park's Web site: www.nps.gov/chis/restoringsci/island.html

* E.P. Foster Library in Ventura, 651 E. Main St.

* Santa Barbara City Library, central branch, 40 E. Anapamu St.

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