Pig eradication plan out of control
by Michael Markarian

May 22, 2005

On Santa Cruz Island off the coast near Santa Barbara, the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy are trying to do to the three little pigs what generations of fairy tales have done to big bad wolves: turn them into vicious marauders.

The Park Service and Nature Conservancy officials are huffing and puffing about feral pigs, which number about 2,000 and have lived on the 96-square- mile island, now part of Channel Islands National Park, since the mid-19th century. After 150 years, officials claim, there is an urgent need to eradicate pigs, because they are said to trample island vegetation and dig up Chumash Indian grave sites. Further, officials argue, the pigs attract golden eagles, which also eat endangered island foxes.

With this rap sheet in hand, the agencies have sentenced the pigs to death, and have hired a New Zealand company called Prohunt to conduct a 27- month lethal eradication program that began in early April. Pigs have very thick skulls and are difficult to kill with a quick, clean shot. Wounded pigs and orphaned piglets will be chased with dogs and finished off with knives and bludgeons.

But the park's former superintendent, Tim Setnicka, who once advocated for the pig eradication program, now says it's based on propaganda and junk science. Setnicka wrote:

"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. Of course, the golden eagles eat pigs, but they eat many more foxes, which are easier for them to catch."

It's not the first time the Channel Islands National Park has been criticized for mismanagement. For two years, park managers showered Anacapa Island with a highly toxic poison called brodifacoum in an effort to exterminate black rats. The poison causes animals to hemorrhage internally and bleed to for up to 10 days as they die. Park administrators said at the time that the nonnative rats were preying on the eggs of rare seabirds, although scientific studies showed that seabird eggs were only a tiny part of the rats' diet.

In addition to rats, the poison killed hundreds of federally protected migratory birds, including white-crowned sparrows, golden-crowned sparrows, Western meadowlarks, American kestrels, and burrowing owls.

Those numbers don't include birds that flew elsewhere to die, or the thousands of Pacific slender salamanders, Anacapa deer mice and other animals that are not protected by federal law. Even fishermen in their boats were hit with poison pellets.

All of this raises the question as to why the Park Service and the Nature Conservancy continue spending millions of dollars on what some park officials internally call their "mega kill, poison, and burn" plan. Even if we accept the premise that the Santa Cruz Island pig population really does need to be controlled or reduced, there are more humane and less draconian approaches. The Humane Society of the United States offered to help with a contraception program for pigs, using a vaccine developed by the Department of Agriculture's National Wildlife Research Center and approved for experimental use by the Food and Drug Administration. But the Park Service and the Nature Conservancy simply said no.

In the face of such dismissive attitudes about a promising and humane technology, one cannot help but wonder if the desire to eradicate pigs, rats, eagles, swans, and other "nonnative" animals is based on their ancestry rather than on their alleged impacts. Wildlife agencies have adopted a certain zealotry in wanting to exterminate any animal species that hasn't been here for an arbitrarily determined amount of time.

Moreover, while some nonnative species have indeed caused ecological disruption -- for example, the zebra mussel -- examples are not arguments. There are bad apples in every bunch. Not every nonnative species is harmful, and not every native species is benign.

When there is a need to step in and correct environmental damage caused by a species, animal welfare must be part of the calculus. The National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy haven't demonstrated that need, and certainly haven't considered a humane solution. A multimillion-dollar program to kill animals with guns, dogs, knives and beatings is cruel, wasteful and indefensible.

Michael Markarian is executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, the nation's largest animal protection group.