San Clemente Island Goat

San Clemente Island Goat

I am not the only Laben undertaking new life stages lately. One of my sisters and her husband, aggrieved with city life, have signed a contract on a New Homestead. Though they must toil in the urban salt mines a bit longer, they’re starting to plan what they will raise on their farm. No monoculturists they! They want a blend of crops and critters adapted to the landscape, able to thrive with a minimum of artificial inputs, and generally healthier than a vast swath of cloned corn or a barn full of turkeys that can’t even reproduce without human input.

I, being incurably inclined to nosiness and procrastination, decided to get in on the act. So I bopped by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy site to see what was up. I ended up zeroing in on the Chantecler, a critically endangered type of Canadian chicken specially adapted for wintry climates. But along the way, I stumbled on the San Clemente Island Goat.

Astute birders of the Western U.S. may well have noted the first part of that name and deduced what’s coming next. I flashed back to my weekend reading on avian extinction in the U.S.

San Clemente Island. One of the Channel Islands, the southernmost. There was a subspecies of Bewick’s Wren there, a lively brown bird that thrived in the scrubby, rocky, dry climate of the windswept island. And then there wasn’t.

Because of the goats. (And sheep, and possibly pigs, but the goats are usually cited as the chief villains). Feral animals, they ate the Wren out of house and home; a bird that a 1908 (when the goats had been there only a few decades) article in The Condor described as “very common on all parts of the island” was gone by the 1940s, due primarily to habitat destruction. The habitat had gone into the stomachs of the goats.

In 1934, the Navy acquired the island for a firing range and landing strip. They ignored the goats until 1972, when someone pointed out to them that being the Federal Government and all, they needed to protect the remaining indigenous creatures of the island (which still include a distinct subspecies of Loggerhead Shrike and several other genetically unique plants and animals). The Navy acted in classic American fashion – after assessing the situation, they sold the goats they could profitably catch and shot the ones they couldn’t.

This went on for some years, the Navy busily reducing the goat population while the goats reacted by busily increasing the goat population – and by growing warier, thriftier, and harder to catch or shoot. Then, in 1979, the Fund for Animals stepped in, objecting to the killing of the goats.

Now comes the vigorous rolling of birder eyes, right? So-called animal lovers are about to sacrifice precious ecosystems in defense of cute and cuddly domestic destruction machines.

Only that’s not what happened. The courts cut a middle path; they allowed the Fund for Animals to round up and remove unprofitable goats, while recognizing that the Navy ultimately had a right to do what was necessary to protect the island. Suits and injunctions continued to occur throughout the early 80s; ultimately, about 6,000 more goats were removed alive from the island, and the remainder were killed off. In 1991, the island was goat-free.

On the mainland, many of the goats that had been adopted out succumbed to unfamiliar diseases, or were neutered or never bred; at one point the population dropped to 250. There are now roughly 400 San Clemente Island Goats in the world. And they, too, as it turns out, are a genetically distinct population; they can’t be linked to the populations of Spanish goats they were assumed to descend from. Left on San Clemente long enough to experience the genetic drift and selective pressures of island life, they’d become small, thrifty, and weather-hardy. They’d also developed excellent mothering skills and a relatively unaggressive disposition. These are genetic traits that could be useful to goats – and thus goat-herders – in many other situations. Now it’s the goats that need preserving.

So the goats are destruction machines and scrappy underdogs, heroes and villains. Which only shows how foolish it often is to project those categories, as powerful as they are, onto animals in the first place.

As an aside, this account indicates that the goats brought a species of ear mite unknown to science with them when they were removed from the island; no word on whether anyone has troubled to preserve that.

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