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ESSENTIAL DESTINATIONS

 

APRIL 2005

Channel Islands National Park ex-chief
hits cruelty of killing “invasive species”

SANTA BARBARA—Denouncing “systematic biologic genocide” committed by the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy in Channel Islands National Park, off the California coast, retired park superintendent Tim J. Setnicka has affirmed almost every criticism of the cruelty of “invasive species” eradication that animal advocates have issued since the killing in the islands began circa 1970.

Setnicka published his 3,500-word confession in the March 25, 2005 edition of the Santa Barbara News Press.

A globally recognized search-and-rescue expert, Setnicka developed his skills during approximately 30 years of killing non-native species in the Channel Islands. “The Park Service reassigned him to other duties before his retirement. He lives in Ojai,” on the nearby mainland, the News Press said.

Setnicka was apparently brought to catharsis after viewing a slide show of the history of Channel Islands National Park at a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the official park opening.

“A large portion of the park’s history revolved around killing one species to save another,” Setnicka saw.

Efforts to eradicate non-native animals from the California coastal islands appear to have begun on San Clemente Island, south of Channel Islands National Park, in 1972. There the U.S. Navy shot 27,000 goats before killing the last one in 1990.

Critical of the slow pace of the Navy extermination program, the National Park Service and Nature Conservancy were much more aggressive in the Channel Islands.

“Even before the park was established, park staff began shooting all the abandoned mules and donkeys on San Miguel Island,” Setnicka recalled. “In 1976, then-Superintendent Bill Ehorn personally finished the eradication program by shooting the last pregnant jenny. On Santa Barbara Island, Bill and staff quietly shot the last hare in 1979. In the 1980s, Mac Shaver,” Ehorn’s successor, “completed the Santa Rosa Island pig eradication program,” Setnicka continued.

“More than 1,200 pigs were killed, first by shotgunning from a helicopter, then by hunting them on the ground using vehicles and dogs. Some opposition developed,” Setnicka said, mentioning the late Fund for Animals founder Cleveland Amory, “but a couple of controlled five-hour media trips to the island to look at pig-damaged vegetation took media interest away from the issue.”

Amory in 1981 started the Black Beauty Ranch sanctuary near Tyler, Texas, to take in about 4,000 animals evacuated from San Clemente and Santa Rosa Islands, plus feral burros whom the National Park Service was shooting at the Grand Canyon.

Amory evacuated animals for three years, but “could not muster his troops in time to intercede and challenge the program,” Setnicka remembered, largely because no film existed of the massacres.

“We never allowed the media to film the hunting. Safety reasons were always given as the reason for denial of their requests,” Setnicka stated. “The real reason was that we wanted to avoid images of the ugliness of the hunt.”

Setnicka admitted his own role in concealing animal massacres.

“Unknown to the public, in about 1998 I authorized the clandestine intermittent killing of problem pigs [on Santa Cruz Island] by signing a National Environmental Policy Act document called a Categorical Exclusion,” explained Setnicka. “Pigs were either individually shot when no one was around, or were trapped first, and shot or knifed in the trap. This program probably continues,” he said. “But we wanted to remove all pigs on an island-wide basis. How to do that?”

Even without film, word of the killing generated upset whenever it leaked out.

“Because of the National Park Service record of shooting mules, rabbits and pigs, plus The Nature Conservancy’s program of shooting more than 36,000 sheep on their portion of Santa Cruz Island in the 1980s,” Setinicka recounted, “rumors quickly spread [in the early 1990s] that the Park Service was going to shoot the remaining 9,000 sheep and 30 abandoned horses. If we could have gotten away with shooting all the sheep and horses, we would have,” Setnicka admitted. “Opposition quickly erased thoughts of such action. We changed plans and began trapping and transporting.”

About 2,500 sheep, poultry, horses, and burros were sent to the mainland by 1997.

“We had to fight off legislation,” Setnicka recalled, “which might have allowed a Heritage Horse Herd on Santa Cruz Island.”

Botched conservation

The Channel Islands killings of hooved stock have always been unpopular with rare breed conservators. Some of the Channel Islands hooved species had survived there since 1720, representing genetic lines that long ago vanished from commercial agriculture. But rare breed conservators are few, and allowing them to take some specimen animals largely quelled their criticism.

By 1999 the policy of exterminating non-native animals could also be recognized as a threat to endangered and threatened wildlife—if anyone looked.

“In the late 1980s,” Setnicka wrote, “seeing an island fox was a daily occurrence, easier than seeing a pig on Santa Rosa Island.”

Feasting on the carcasses of hooved animals massacred by the National Park Service and Nature Conservancy, the fox population soared to a probably all-time high.

“But their numbers mysteriously declined,” Setnicka recounted. “In the mid-1990s it was learned their decline was due to an influx of golden eagles.”

Setnicka did not acknowledge that the carrion-eating golden eagles were in effect baited into proximity to the foxes by the practice of leaving the dead hooved animals where they fell. To date, no one from either the National Park Service or the Nature Conservancy has admitted this.

But Setnicka did admit that, “To help sell the fox restoration program, for which we had no money, we came up with the media spin that one of the main reasons golden eagles reside on park islands was because of pigs. This would help vilify the pigs and help support the pig removal project.

“We didn’t really remind folks that by 1991 we had shot all the pigs on Santa Rosa Island, so there were no pigs for eagles to eat,” Setnicka continued. “Of course the golden eagles eat pigs, but” as the carrion supply dwindled, “they eat many more foxes, which are easier for them to catch.”

“A successful fox plan also requires the ‘removal’ of golden eagles,” Setnicka acknowledged. “We proposed doing this first by capturing them and then, if we couldn’t capture them all, by shooting them. Shooting them was not emphasized in the media spin. We anticipated the huge amount of public heat that shooting eagles would cause. Unfortunately, golden eagles were much smarter and more elusive than we first thought. So the final plan was to shoot golden eagles from the ground, and with approval, from a helicopter. As far as I know [this] never was really tried, but who knows for sure?”

The Channel Islands fox is now officially recognized as endangered.

Though ANIMAL PEOPLE repeatedly exposed the role of the hooved animal exterminations in jeopardizing the foxes, beginning in May 1999, mainstream media merely noted the conflict between the foxes and the eagles, who are also a protected species. Once again the National Park Service avoided being called to account.

Rats rally opposition

Ironically, public scrutiny most intensified when the Park Service tried to kill all the rats on Anacapa Island. After conventional trapping and poisoning at bait stations failed, Setnicka wrote, “the park’s chief of natural resources management developed a plan to use a helicopter to sprinkle poison bait all over the island.

“We didn’t think we would have much problem in the media with this project. Who could love a rat? As it turned out, lots of people,” Setnicka learned.

After other tactics failed to stop the indiscriminate poison distribution, Channel Islands Animal Protection Association founder Rob Puddicome and volunteer Robert Crawford sailed an inflatable raft to Anacapa Island and distributed at least five pounds of Vitamin K pellets as an intended antidote to protect the rats.

Puddicome and Channel Islands Animal Protection Association cofounder Scarlet Newton had particularly long and strong records of activism on behalf of wildlife of all sorts. Their criticism was not easily dismissed.

Crawford pleaded guilty, was fined $200, and was placed on probation for two years. Puddicome demanded his day in court.

“Most embarrassingly,” Setnicka recalled, the prosecution made “a poor case, and [Puddi-come] was found not guilty by a Santa Barbara U.S. magistrate.

“The Channel Islands Animal Protection Association almost got the rat poisoning stopped, but was too late in mobilizing,” Setnicka said.

Pigs

The Nature Conservancy and National Park Service on January 27, 2005 announced that they will jointly spend $5 million to try to kill all 2,000 pigs remaining on Santa Cruz Island within the next 18 months. Of that amount, $3.9 million will be paid to ProHunt New Zealand Ltd., a company which specializes in shooting feral animals. Dead pigs are again to be left where they drop.

“The current plan calls for fencing the island into units and then using aerial gunnery, followed by horse, dog, and ATV hunting,” Setnicka said. “Once aerial shooting is complete, ground hunting begins. In the case of Santa Cruz Island, the vast majority of the hunting will be on foot, in thick vegetation.

“I participated in 10 or so of these eradication hunts both on Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz,” Setnicka recalled. “In thick vegetation, clean kill shots are hard to make. We frequently gut-shot and wounded pigs who escaped. When sows were shot, their piglets were caught by dogs, or we chased them down on foot. The dogs frequently chased down and cornered pigs. They would often mangle the smaller pigs. The larger pigs would fight the dogs, occasionally injuring or killing one. The pigs were caught by their hind legs and then knifed or beaten to death.

“Later phases of pig hunting include widespread spraying of poison,” Setnicka continued, “which kills native as well as non-native vegetation. But killing native plants is acceptable as collateral damage to many scientists. To clear the dead vegetation, fire will be used. Not well-known,” Setnicka confessed, “is that in the 1990s a Park Service-prescribed fire on Santa Cruz Island escaped and burned hundreds of acres. We escaped much criticism. This occurred before the disastrous NPS Los Alamos fire in New Mexico.

“In certain areas, widespread spraying of herbicide over large areas of the exotic fennel plant will occur at least twice,” Setnicka added.

The pig extermination “will take a minimum of six years to accomplish,” Setnicka forecast, “and will not eradicate fennel,” which “will quickly grow back.

“Even though a large portion of the hunting will take place on private and closed lands, I predict that somehow opponents will get video or photos of the hunting activities,” Setnicka said, “and these activities are very graphic and ugly. Regardless of how the NPS tries to spin this eradication effort, images of what ‘eradication’ truly means will go to the media and the general public will go nuts.”

Seek new concepts

Concluded Setnicka, “Each year, as a park superintendent, playing God in your national park gets harder and harder to do. Hiding controversial projects from the public, minimizing and denying their adverse impacts, and then outliving or litigating the opposition worked in the last century, but likely won’t succeed in today’s society. Opposition groups are wise to this technique, and the public is more aware of what the Park Service is up to.

“There is a solution to this dilemma,” Setnicka suggested. “A Channel Islands National Park advisory board needs to be established. Until this board is in place, the pig hunting project should temporarily stop, along with the herbicide and burning activities.

“The first goal of the advisory board,” Setnicka recommended, should be to introduce “new concepts into how pigs and alien plants can be removed,” such as using injectible immunocontraceptives and chemosterilants.

“Delaying the start of hunting, poisoning and burning until establishment of an advisory board to review and consider alternatives does not jeopardize the removal. Rather, it will ensure its success,” Setnicka finished.

Responded Puddicome, “We’re delighted that an insider is finally telling the truth about the cruelty and deceit of so-called restoration. Setnicka confirms CHIAPA’s message that there’s something for everyone to hate about these projects.” 

Added Newton, “This is a miracle. We’re immensely grateful that Mr. Setnicka had the courage to speak up. Perhaps now Congress will finally grant our request for an investigation.”

[Contact the Channel Islands Animal Protection Association c/o 805-882-2008 or info@chiapa.org.]