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Catalina Eagle Hopes Grounded

State, federal officials will halt funding of program to reintroduce the majestic birds. Officials will reconsider the project after 2007.

June 23, 2005|Marla Cone | Times Staff Writer

Rejecting impassioned pleas from hundreds of nature lovers but giving them a glimmer of hope for the future, federal and state officials said Wednesday that they will stop funding reintroduction of bald eagles on Santa Catalina Island but would consider restarting the project after 2007.

Officials representing six environmental agencies have finalized their decision about how $25 million in settlement money will be spent over the next five years to help Southern California's ecosystem recover from a decades-old ocean deposit of DDT. It is a key part of the second-largest settlement in U.S. history paid to the public to make amends for damaged natural resources.

Between 1947 and 1971, a Montrose Chemical Corp. factory near Torrance flushed the pesticide DDT into county sewers, which empty into the ocean off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. After 10 years of litigation in federal court begun in 1990, Montrose and other companies and municipalities paid the federal and state governments a total of $140 million. Of that, $38 million, plus interest, must be used to restore local fish, eagles, peregrine falcons and seabirds.

For the past quarter-century, wildlife experts have spent several million dollars trying to revive bald eagles on Catalina Island that were wiped out by the DDT deposit in the 1960s. The eagles reintroduced there, however, are still carrying so much DDT in their bodies that their eggs cannot hatch without the help of scientists who retrieve them from rugged cliffs and hatch the chicks in zoo incubators.

In April, the trustee council -- representatives of the six agencies entrusted with spending the restoration money -- proposed a plan that would have stopped all Catalina funding after this year and instead spend up to $6.2 million to restore eagles only on Santa Cruz Island and other northern Channel Islands, off Ventura County, where the birds may be less contaminated. Under that original plan, reintroduction of eagles on the northern islands would be funded through 2007, and then, if those birds were unable to produce chicks on their own, the remaining funds would be diverted to help other seabirds.

Now, after considering comments from the public, the trustees have decided that the entire $6.2 million will be reserved exclusively for restoring eagles, even if they cannot successfully breed. The $1 million to $2 million of eagle funds designated for use after 2007 can be spent either on the northern Channel Islands or on Catalina -- wherever the trustees decide the chances of success are best.

"The council recognizes that eagles play an important role in the Channel Islands, regardless of whether they are able to successfully breed or not," said Annie Little, a bird biologist and trustee representing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "In the previous plan we had decided that money would not be spent on Catalina even if the northern Channel Islands study failed. Now the council is willing to reopen that possibility."

Little said the decision about where to spend the eagle money after 2007 "will really depend on the contaminant levels and if the birds [on the northern islands] are as contaminated as Catalina birds." By 2007, eaglets reintroduced on Santa Cruz Island in the past few years will be old enough to breed, and biologists can see if their eggs are hatching naturally.

More than 500 people signed letters and petitions urging the trustees last month to continue funding the restoration of eagles on Catalina, said Milena Viljoen, communications and outreach coordinator for the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program.

Many of them, members of the Catalina Island Conservancy, wrote that they found it inspiring that the bald eagle, the nation's symbol, was inhabiting an island just 26 miles off the coast of Los Angeles and visited by more than a million tourists a year. Only 43 people sent letters supporting the trustees' proposal.

Ann Muscat, president of the conservancy, said Wednesday that the decision was "extremely disappointing."

"The so-called concession is really meaningless," she said. "Even though public comment was overwhelmingly in favor of continuing the project on Catalina, they chose essentially to stick with their proposed plan."

Muscat said the trustees could take some of the money reserved for other seabirds and spend it on Catalina's eagles. "Catalina is closest to the source [of the DDT] so we don't think it's right that none of the funds will be designated for it. We're fully in support of the work on the northern Channel Islands, but we disagree strongly that it is scientifically sound to abandon Catalina's program," she said.

Reintroduced by scientists beginning in 1980, the Catalina eagles are the only resident population of bald eagles along Southern California's coast, today numbering 15 to 20. But they have not produced any chicks on their own because DDT continues to seep from the ocean floor, contaminating their prey.

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